November 12, 2014
STAR-CROSSED LOVERS: Romeo (Robby Keown) and Juliet (Rachel Stone) put on their masks before the Capulets’ ball in rehearsal for Theatre Intime and Princeton Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 15.

STAR-CROSSED LOVERS: Romeo (Robby Keown) and Juliet (Rachel Stone) put on their masks before the Capulets’ ball in rehearsal for Theatre Intime and Princeton Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 15.

Near the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus offers his bride Hippolyta a witty and wise critique of the play-within-the-play that they are watching. “The best in this kind are but shadows;” he says, “and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” The Theatre Intime — Princeton Shakespeare Company collaborative production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, at Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 15, takes on the daunting challenges of Shakespeare’s early romantic tragedy with energy and intelligence, but at times makes inordinate demands on the audience’s imagination and ability to suspend disbelief.

The production features some strong individual performances, consistently high production values, and clear, effective staging of the numerous scenes and the complex action of the play. The difficult lines — richly poetic, full of figurative language, colorful imagery, paradoxes and puns — are mostly well memorized and seemingly well understood by the actors, but the audience’s imagination is indeed strained, as performers often fail to communicate those lines and their characters with clear and dramatic expression and meaning.

Charlie Baker’s Mercutio, Sean Toland’s Friar Laurence, Robby Keown’s Romeo, and Justin Poser’s Tybalt provide strong, lucid, captivating characterizations, but other actors at times do not credibly and clearly deliver the Shakespearean language and engage the audience. In this play, clashing attitudes and concerns between adults and youths are crucial issues, but the age stretches for the six of these fourteen mostly undergraduate — one graduate student — actors playing adult roles are formidable. With luck, demands on the audience’s imagination to fill in credibility gaps may diminish as the play moves into its second weekend; these performers should settle more comfortably and confidently into their roles, diction and projection should sharpen, and the chemistry between the title character lovers should warm up.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, early in his career, before the great tragedies, in the same years (1595-96) as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both plays are concerned with how the “course of true love never did run smooth,” and they share similar comedic elements until the tone of Romeo and Juliet darkens half way through and the play turns to the tragic mode.

Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in Western literature, perhaps in all literature. Over the 420 years since its creation it has inspired thousands of productions and hundreds of different adaptations for stage and screen around the world. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie with its beautiful Italian settings and unforgettable musical score, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and the action updated to present-day Verona Beach, Florida, the great 1957 musical West Side Story, set in the streets of New York City, and Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet come most readily to mind, but there has also been a gnome version (“Gnomeo and Juliet”), a feline version, a sea lions cartoon version, a martial arts version — is there a time period in history or a place on the globe that has not served as a setting for the retelling of this powerful tale?

“It is too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden, too like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere one can say ‘It lightens,’” Juliet (Rachel Stone) warns Romeo after they exchange their first vows of love. And soon afterwards, from Friar Laurence, Romeo receives another warning, similar in its dramatic imagery and urgency: “These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which as they kiss consume.”

Of course, the nature and intensity of their passion make it impossible for Romeo and Juliet to heed these warnings, impossible for them to do anything but self-destruct in pursuing their desires. Amidst a bitter feud between their powerful families, Romeo and Juliet suffer a combination of bad luck, feckless adult influences, and mocking, impetuous friends to help speed them on their tragic trajectory. From Romeo’s first glimpse of Juliet (“Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!”) at her father’s masquerade party, to their shyness and first kiss, Juliet’s realization that their families are dire enemies, through the balcony scene and their first declarations of love for each other (“My bounty,” says Juliet, “is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”), their secret marriage, Romeo’s banishment, and their final encounter, their romance is enthralling, the poetic language is rich and moving, but their doom is inevitable.

Mr. Keown’s Romeo is worthy and convincing as both fighter and lover. Dressed all in white, a strong costuming statement, he and Ms. Stone are set apart from their more darkly clad peers. All are in contemporary attire, although the language and other elements of the play remain traditional. Ms. Stone is an appealing Juliet, though her words and her shifting emotions do not always project with sufficient clarity and impact. Too much of the rich language is lost here.

Mr. Baker as the eloquent, ebullient Mercutio, ill-fated comrade to Romeo, is the most successful of the company in communicating character, dramatic movement and the rich poetry — so sad, for many reasons, that he does not survive past intermission. Mr. Toland, as a bespectacled, side-burned Friar Laurence, presents the most convincing of the older generation characters, while Mr. Poser’s “fiery” cousin Tybalt proves a suitably fearsome adversary for Mercutio and Romeo.

Jessica Li as Juliet’s nurse is entertainingly playful, talkative, bawdy and meddlesome, though less than convincing as a maternal figure. Miranda Bolef as a female transformation of Benvolio, Sam Kessler as an authoritative Prince Escalus, and Christian Gray as Juliet’s hapless fiancé Paris all present sound characterizations and deliver the 16th century prose and poetry with understanding and intelligibility. T.J. Smith and Kristin Coke as the Capulets, irascible father and fretful mother, Lydia Watt as Montague and Joseph Labatt and Jacob Zweiback, each in a variety of different roles, lend support throughout the evening.

Rachel Wilson, Princeton University junior, has directed this challenging production with skill and sensitivity. The action moves swiftly from scene to scene, and the plot — though not always all the lines — flows smoothly and dynamically from start to finish of this two-and-a-half-hour production. Wesley Cornwell’s unit set, constructed entirely of hundreds of wooden pallets stacked from floor to ceiling, provides the smell of a lumberyard and a bit of the look of a ramshackle shantytown, but the simplicity is effective in staging the action economically, providing the requisite entrances, exits and multiple levels for more than twenty different scenes, including balcony, bedroom, ballroom, street, underground tomb and others. Hannah Yang’s creative, nuanced lighting design contributes significantly in establishing the changing venues and in communicating the ominous shifts in mood as the action darkens from comedy to romance to tragedy. Savannah Marquandt’s contemporary costumes and Matt Smith’s portentous sound contribute further to the creation of the intense, dangerous, shifting world of the play.

“More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!” Romeo observes as he leaves Juliet at sunrise to serve out his sentence of banishment. As the stage lights darken for the final time at the end of this play, the Prince intones his final tragic pronouncement on the proceedings: “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Despite some lapses in this production, the audience reaps abundant reminders of the greatness of the Bard (even so early in his career), the beauty and richness of his poetry, and the power of these two lovers to remain, more than four centuries later, our enduring model of true love.

The Theatre Intime’s and Princeton Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” will run for one more weekend, November 13-15, with performances Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. in the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org for tickets and information.

October 22, 2014
REHEARSAL WOES: Harry (Adam Green), in the title role, is surprised to find that his jilted ex-fiancee Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad) is the stage manager, running the understudy rehearsal - and that's just one of many mishaps that ensue in McCarter Theatre's production of Theresa Rebeck's "The Understudy," playing at McCarter's Matthews Theatre through November 2.

REHEARSAL WOES: Harry (Adam Green), in the title role, is surprised to find that his jilted ex-fiancee Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad) is the stage manager, running the understudy rehearsal – and that’s just one of many mishaps that ensue in McCarter Theatre’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy,” playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2.

Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy (2008) is a comical, 90-minute, one-act depiction of life in the theater. The setting is a theater during a special rehearsal to help prepare the new understudy for a Broadway premiere of a recently discovered work by Franz Kafka. On the big stage at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through November 2, The Understudy presents a humorous and affectionate representation of two actors and their stage manager — all under unusual personal and occupational stresses.

From the opening sound of a gunshot until the final curtain, high tension and multiple mishaps, both human and technical, proliferate. It’s a funny play, with some razor sharp wit, clever dialogue, and rich comical situations evolving as rehearsal and personal relationships progress. Ms. Rebeck is also delivering an indictment of the American Theater’s obsession with celebrity and the debilitating, dehumanizing effects of that obsession on the dedicated artists who continue the work they love as actors, stage managers, and other theater artists. The fact that the play-within-the-play is a lost work by Franz Kafka helps to ensure that the comedy served here will at times be dark and satirical.

This production, under the resourceful direction of Adam Immerwahr, in his first time directing on a McCarter main stage, merges a dynamically interesting, energetic, and talented cast of three with an extravagantly engaging set design and dazzling production values. What the script may lack in depth or development of plot and characters, this vibrant trio of experienced young actors, along with Eugene Lee’s fascinating, frequently moving set as a fourth character, provide to successfully capture the audience’s attention and interest.

The central metaphor here compares these anxious, isolated actors to characters from Kafka’s stories, particularly The Trial and The Castle — placed in mysterious, surreal situations, controlled by irrational forces in a dark, absurd world where there is no choice but to forge ahead. In The Understudy those tyrannical, invisible, offstage forces include not just the Hollywood-driven financial powers of the acting hierarchy and the whims of the businessmen producers, but also the erratic behavior of a stoned light board operator with her abundant supply of wheeling and flying scenery and special effects. Roxanne, the stage manager character, and her two actors, Harry and Jake, are, of course, also subject to the vicissitudes of human behavior in the tangles of a romantic triangle of sorts.

As the McCarter program points out, however, “everything you need to know about Kafka to enjoy The Understudy is “nothing at all …” Despite Kafka’s brooding black and white visage and a greatly enlarged page from an edited manuscript hanging over the stage, profundity, character exploration, and plot development are not priorities here. Comedy and a fascinating, quirky glimpse at the creative process of theater are the order of the day for this show, and the opening-night audience responded with abundant laughter from start to finish.

In the role of Harry the understudy, Adam Green establishes a winning rapport with the audience in his brilliantly funny, satiric, psychologically-revealing opening monologue. He continues to navigate skillfully the difficulties of the journeyman actor confronting first Jake (JD Taylor), his rival “Hollywood” scene counterpart, then Roxanne (Danielle Skraastad), his stage manager/boss, who also happens to be the woman he jilted just two weeks before their scheduled wedding. Mr. Green, who played Figaro in last spring’s acclaimed McCarter productions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, is charming and sympathetic in his frustrations (“I mean it’s not — and it’s not that I’m bitter. People look at you; they say oh he’s an actor who’s not liked so he must be kind of bitter, and I am, I am bitter, but that doesn’t mean that movies don’t suck …”) — an ideal guide to lead us into the crazy backstage world of actors and the rehearsal process.

Mr. Taylor’s Jake, a screen star known for his roles in action movies, commands $2 million for his film roles, yet remains at the mercy of bigger Hollywood names and ruthless producers. His conventional good looks and dashing presence have gone a long way for Jake, who knows how to draw a gun with panache and apparently reached the apex of his career with his recent movie line: “Get on the truck!” Mr. Taylor persuasively embodies both the much mocked matinee idol/action movie star and also a more sympathetic actor coming to terms with a challenging stage role, two psychologically complex colleagues and the realities of life in the theater.

Ms. Skraastad’s Roxanne is commanding and larger than life as stage manager and woman scorned. She battles valiantly against the forces of fate and theatrical mischance to try to keep the rehearsal and her life moving forward. Harry explains that “the stage manager is the one person in the theater you’re supposed to be able to count on to keep her head. That’s the job description: to always have six kinds of duct tape, a pencil sharpener, Band-Aids, and a cool head” — but under the circumstances the cool head is too much to expect. Roxanne is understandably, comically flummoxed in her struggles with the intoxicated light board operator, the actors and the producers on the phone — not to mention the unexpected appearance of her ex-fiancé. With her air of authority, barely covering fierce anger and hysteria, she is funny and admirably convincing.

Mr. Lee’s set uses the immense Matthews stage and many of its accessories to full advantage, representing, and at the same time exaggerating and satirizing, the excesses of the big-budget Broadway show. With dozens of lighting instruments on all sides, a giant wind machine, melodramatic music and sound effects, picturesque onstage precipitation, a ghost light at center stage, a vast “Broadway-style” proscenium arch complete with golden-harp motif, along with a variety of set pieces wheeling on and off, and huge backdrops of a study, a tavern, and a dungeon — this animated set creates a comedy of its own. And of course there’s the face and manuscript of Kafka hanging at center stage above this Kafka-esque world. A large, well-equipped stage manager’s table in the front section amidst the orchestra seats provides Roxanne with a command post from which she vainly attempts to rein in the chaos of this rehearsal. The much acclaimed Mr. Lee, designer of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and at Saturday Night Live since 1974, has designed many Broadway shows, including the current long-running musical Wicked.

Kafka, who, supposedly, actually wrote a play that no longer exists and whose aura does pervade The Understudy and the play-within-the-play, once stated: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope in the universe — but not for us.” In the end, however, Ms. Rebeck’s indomitable characters and her comedic perspective on the underbelly of the theater world, succeed in transcending the hopelessness and leaving us with a joyful affirmation of life and theater.

October 1, 2014
MASTER CLASS: Mark Rothko (John Fairchild, on left) uses his assistant Dan (Ryan Gedrich) as student, sounding board, and lackey, as the two clash frequently while creating Rothko’s massive paintings, in Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” (2009) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 4.

MASTER CLASS: Mark Rothko (John Fairchild, on left) uses his assistant Dan (Ryan Gedrich) as student, sounding board, and lackey, as the two clash frequently while creating Rothko’s massive paintings, in Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” (2009) at the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 4.

In 1958, Mark Rothko, in his mid-50s, vastly successful and in the final years of transition towards abstraction in his painting, undertook one of the most prestigious and lucrative commissions ever offered to an artist. At the behest of architects Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, Rothko began work on his Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Rothko created these massive, magnificent canvases, rectangular fields of reds and black, in his old gymnasium studio in the Bowery, New York City.

Intensely serious, brilliant, arrogant, fiercely opinionated, and obsessive, Rothko painted at least 30 of these murals, though only seven were required, but he eventually repudiated the commission, and returned the advance money. The famous Seagram Murals today hang in the Tate Museum in London, the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan.

John Logan’s two-character drama Red (2009), originally produced at the Donmar Warehouse in London with Alfred Molina in the role of Rothko, then brought to Broadway the following year, and now through October 4 at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, portrays the artist in his studio over a period of a few months in 1958-59. The play, winner of six Tony Awards, including Best Play, is about the relationship between the artist and his work, and also about the growing, conflict-ridden connection between Rothko and his young assistant. Rothko’s work and increasingly dark aesthetic focused on engaging with and enveloping the viewer, and Mr. Logan’s play also attempts to embrace the audience and explore the relationship between the artistic work and the spectator.

Felicitously scheduled to coincide with an exhibit of abstract expressionist works, including a painting by Rothko, at the Princeton University Art Museum, this production of Red provides, in five scenes without intermission, a rich theoretical discussion of modern art, a master class of sorts, and a glimpse into the world of Rothko’s atelier. Red is also an intriguing human drama and a compelling story of a young artist coming of age through his struggles with the overpowering shadow of his controlling mentor/father figure.

Mr. Logan’s dramatic device here of presenting Rothko and his work through his interactions and dialogue with his young assistant Ken is a rewarding stratagem that both reveals the man and his art and tells a dramatically engaging story — occasionally contrived and not quite historically accurate, but mostly convincing and full of striking truths.

The Theatre Intime Princeton University undergraduate company, under the direction here of junior Oge Ude, has taken on this serious, challenging script, with focus, thoughtful intelligence, creativity and commitment that befit the subject matter and the artist they are portraying.

John Fairchild, as Rothko, making the stretch to portray this domineering icon more than twice his own age, does, unsurprisingly, lack the gravitas of this fearsome artist. The moments when Rothko should be roaring are somewhat toned down here, but Mr. Fairchild succeeds in bringing to life the profound seriousness and passion of the character. Lightly bearded with shaved head and glasses, short-tempered, nervous and full of pent-up energy, he makes this character, in his anger, despair and transcendent intensity, both credible and thoroughly absorbing.

As the new assistant Ken, Ryan Gedrich provides a strong counterpart to the powerful Rothko. From the opening line, Rothko’s “What do you see?” followed by his first diatribe/sermon, Ken listens and, throughout the play, increasingly finds his own voice, develops his own independent character and identity as an artist, despite the overweening dominance of his dogmatic mentor. Mr. Gedrich’s depiction of this young man coming of age, who, as it turns out, has a dark secret of his own, is dynamically interesting and sympathetic, deftly providing the audience with an illuminating perspective on Rothko the man, Rothko the artist and his realm of abstract expressionism. “This is the first time you’ve existed,” Rothko tells Ken after his protégé, for the first time in their mounting Oedipal conflict, challenges Rothko, fights back, and asserts himself. Besides being a counterbalance to the monumental Rothko, Ken also speaks for the new generation of artists — Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and others — whom Rothko sees as threats to his supremacy.

Becoming an integral part of this production between scenes, sometimes on stage and sometimes in the aisles, is a six-person modern dance troupe: Peter Deffeback, Selah Hampton, Kamber Hart, Casey Ivanovich, Tess Marchant and Glenna Yu. Contributing to the abstract expressionism of the style, theme, and subject matter of the rest of the production, the dancers also interact with the paint, and in paint-splattered t-shirts and fiery red light they reflect the tension and movement in the paintings and in the psychological struggles of the drama. Less skilled dancers or a less subtle, sensitive, sophisticated director could make this choreographic addition to the play an intrusion or distraction, but here the dance interludes are both riveting and appropriately complementary to the human drama at center stage.

Original, mostly atonal music by Sam Kaseta is also highly effective in establishing the dark, unsettling tone and mood of the piece. Marissa Applegate’s unit set design, with scenic design by David White and lighting by Alana Jaskir, is realistic, detailed, and believable in creating Rothko’s cluttered gymnasium studio with vivid, specific details: paint cans, brushes, bottles of Scotch, a phonograph and records, stovetop, phone, and, most importantly, large representations of three of Rothko’s canvases in red with black lines. The lighting appropriately remains dim throughout most of the play, as Rothko himself demanded dim lighting in attempting to control the environment in which his work would be seen.

Rothko orders his assistant Ken to read Freud, Jung, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. (The battle in the work of art and in life is always the battle of Greek tragedy, the battle between the order and reason of Apollo and the irrational passion and energy of Dionysus.) The references here to artists, writers, and thinkers are abundant. The 90-minute play, among other things, is certainly a sort of master class for the audience. Rothko’s question, “What do you see?” at both the beginning and end of the play, as he looks at the imaginary fourth-wall painting hanging in front of the audience, is a crucial question for Ken and for us. We too are the work. It is our class, and we too must accept the invitation to become immersed and enlightened in our encounters with the artist’s creation.

Theatre Intime’s production of John Logan’s “Red” will run for one more weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, October 2 and 3, and at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 4, in the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For tickets and information call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org.

September 17, 2014
“LET ROME IN TIBER MELT”: Mark Antony (Esau Pritchett), general and co-ruler of Rome, romances the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Nicole Ari Parker), as civil wars rage throughout the Roman world, in William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 5.(Photo by T. Charles Erickson}

“LET ROME IN TIBER MELT”: Mark Antony (Esau Pritchett), general and co-ruler of Rome, romances the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Nicole Ari Parker), as civil wars rage throughout the Roman world, in William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 5. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson}

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07), written after the great tragedies of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, is seen by scholars and theater practitioners as a “problem play.” Despite the fame of its protagonists and the richness of the plot and poetry, the play is seldom produced, and assessments of its text and its characters diverge widely. Emily Mann’s current production of Antony and Cleopatra at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre in Princeton is an exciting theatrical event and a bold, engaging endeavor to present and overcome the challenges of this perplexing masterwork.

The problems start with the play’s genre. Is it history, tragedy, romance, comedy, or something else? (The McCarter website, mccarter.org, gives you an opportunity to vote on this question.) The historical detail here is extensive — Plutarch’s Lives (translated into English in 1579) is Shakespeare’s principal source — as Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar and others engage in the civil wars, after the death of Julius Caesar, which eventually lead to the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. The grandeur of the two protagonists and the sense of loss and waste in their devastating fall certainly evoke the thoughts and emotions of tragedy. But there is also a spirit and tone here that is lighter than that of the great tragedies. The romance here — both in the love between Antony and Cleopatra and in the contrasts between the stern, efficient reality of Rome and the exotic, emotional, sensual attractions of Egypt — is a powerful element of the play.

The problems, both practical and theoretical, multiply for producers of this play. How do you stage a script that includes 42 scenes, as the action of the play shifts rapidly back and forth between Rome and Alexandria in Egypt, from palaces to battlefields and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean, and calls for more than 40 different characters? And how do you interpret these heroic, larger-than-life, even mythical main characters with their fatal flaws, their moral ambiguity, and their destructive actions?

Ms. Mann has made judicious cuts in the original script, eliminating several short scenes and merging or eliminating a few minor characters, in order to focus the action and bring the running time to just two and a half hours. Only 11 actors here play 21 different roles. Audiences are not likely to miss the deleted lines, characters, or events. Also streamlining the action and enhancing pace, continuity, and dramatic tension are Daniel Ostling’s unit set design, finely coordinated with Paul Tazewell’s striking costumes, Edward Pierce’s lavish and varied expressionistic lighting and Mark Bennett’s original music and sound, mostly performed onstage by percussionist Mark Katsaounis.

The simple set, following the principle of Shakespeare’s bare platform stage without curtains, consists only of three large panels — like three huge sails? — golden in color and origami-like in their texture and folds. The actors and their lines, aided by costumes, music and lighting, splendidly and clearly delineate the shifting locales and contrasting worlds of this play. Individually and in finely coordinated collaboration, the clothing, the soundscape, the colors, and the nuances of light reflect the clashing of the cold, martial efficiency of Octavius’s Rome with the warmer, less rigid, more mysterious allures of Egypt.

An even bigger challenge with this problem play lies in the two monumental protagonists and their troubled, intense relationship. Again Ms. Mann has risen to the challenges in her casting of Esau Pritchett and Nicole Ari Parker. Mr. Pritchett played the leading role of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences at McCarter last January and last spring performed as a younger Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599) at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. The imposing character of Troy, albeit in mid-20th century Pittsburgh rather than first century B.C. Rome, shares a number of Antony’s strengths and flaws, and Mr. Pritchett, with numerous other Shakespearean roles on his resume, is superbly qualified to don the mantel of Antony here. He is physically and vocally able to command the stage — convincing as the great, aging military and political leader and also fully believable as the lover of Cleopatra. As he moves back and forth between Rome and Egypt, Mr. Pritchett’s Antony vividly embodies the noble, admirable qualities and the morally ambiguous, flawed qualities of both worlds. He is convincing as both mighty warrior and infatuated lover, in grandeur and in human weakness. He is both “the triple pillar of the world” and ”a strumpet’s fool,” as he is described by one of his followers in the opening scene.

As Cleopatra, Ms. Parker, star of films and Showtime’s Soul Food series, is, in many ways, a worthy counterpart to this Antony. Dazzlingly beautiful in an array of stunning costumes, she brings the character to life with a contemporary flair that works effectively in portraying Cleopatra in many of her more human moments of worry, of anger, of cattiness, of bantering affection with Antony, of jealousy when she hears of Antony’s arranged marriage. She is less adept than Mr. Pritchett with the poetic lines, however, less clear in communicating the rich language and less able to rise to the grand stature of this mighty queen and last reigning pharaoh of Egypt.

As Antony’s friend and follower Enobarbus, Michael Siberry creates a sympathetic character, torn by central conflicts of the play. He also provides a valuable, often ambivalent perspective on the proceedings and delivers, most eloquently, some of the Bard’s finest poetry. For example, he describes Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,/Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold;/Purple the sails, and so perfumed that/The winds were lovesick with them … Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.”

As Cleopatra’s eunuch Mardian, the incomparable Everett Quinton, bedecked in bright orange with appropriate nail polish and shimmering handbag, creates a character — fascinating, extravagant, at times comical, yet believable too — to embody the gender conflicts and ambiguities of the play. Mr. Quinton plays a second very different role, also convincing, in the final scene of the play as he delivers the basket of deadly asps to his queen.

As Octavius Caesar, the cold, calculating, consummate leader, nephew, and adoptive son of Julius Caesar, soon to become the triumphant Caesar Augustus, Tobias Segal, not large in size but mighty in authority, delivers his part with imperious command.

The first-rate supporting cast is impressively strong, well-rehearsed and consistently in character. Mairin Lee in two roles as Octavia, sister of Octavius, betrothed to Antony in an arranged political marriage, and also as Cleopatra’s servant Iras is on target and affecting, as is Zainab Jah as another attendant on the queen. Tom Sesma in a variety of roles, Philippe Bowgen as Octavius’ stern lieutenant, Keith Eric Chappelle as a mesmerizing soothsayer and other roles, and Warner Miller as Antony’s faithful right-hand man–all lend credible, invaluable support.

Mr. Katsaounis, the percussionist, ensconced on stage left but emerging at key moments with an enormous red, war drum, rightfully joins the cast list, as a significant dynamic player in the drama.

“Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have/Immortal longings in me,” Cleopatra tells her attendants as her end approaches in the final scene of the play.

Despite all the “problems” of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the play is undeniably one of the Bard’s greatest poetic masterpieces and a brilliant study of two of the most fascinating, memorable characters in all literature and history. The theatricality here is brilliant. Ms. Mann and the McCarter company successfully bring Shakespeare’s colorful, transcendently poetic vision to life in this stirring production.

 

August 13, 2014
SCAMMERS AND THEIR PREY: Subtle (Bruce Cromer, left), posing as the all-knowing alchemist, foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” (1610), playing through August 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison.(Photo by Jerry Dalia)

SCAMMERS AND THEIR PREY: Subtle (Bruce Cromer, left), posing as the all-knowing alchemist, foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” (1610), playing through August 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison. (Photo by Jerry Dalia)

“O Rare Ben Jonson!” reads the epitaph on the tomb, in London’s Westminster Abbey, of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean poet and playwright. Though Jonson is considered, along with Shakespeare, to be one of the two towering figures of English Renaissance drama, his “rarity” is most clearly manifested today in the unlikelihood of anyone reading or producing his plays.

Undaunted, Bonnie Monte, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director, has painstakingly and lovingly adapted and staged Mr. Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), a wild, irreverent satiric comedy, one of his two most famous plays (along with Volpone from 1605). Even in this streamlined, artfully directed, skillfully acted, impressively fine and funny production, the reasons why you may never have had an opportunity to see a Ben Jonson play are obvious.

While Shakespeare may have been, as Jonson himself described him, “not of an age but for all time,” Jonson lived in the moment and was decidedly a man of his time. The Alchemist, for example, takes place in Jonson’s present-day Blackfriars, a suburb of London, during the Plague. Firmly rooted in the corruptions of the real world, Mr. Jonson’s comedy is satiric, holding the mirror up to human beings and their actions, showing us our folly and foibles so that we can make amends.

Heroism? Idealism? Admirable characters? True romance? Not likely in Jonson’s world. Money takes priority over love here, and these characters, all driven by greed and ego-centrism, are not easy to warm up to, despite an enormous, boisterous energy, a vitality and even grandeur emanating from the sheer cunning, creativity, and enjoyment in their out-and-out knavery. And there may also be particular resonances, some lessons to be learned by contemporary audiences, engulfed in the relentless self-promotions, aggressive marketing, and offensive sales pitches of our materialistic world.

Ms. Monte’s adaptation of The Alchemist, including “at least 1000 changes to Jonson’s original text,” deletion of “various minor characters and locations,” “hundreds of cuts and word changes,” and many lines rewritten is helpful in clarifying or eliminating eccentric and incomprehensible syntax, topical allusions, obscure vocabulary and colloquialisms. Those changes, along with some superb performances and a fine sense of comic timing throughout, help to ensure that the humor comes across here. At three hours running time, however, with sustained close listening a requisite and some comprehension challenges remaining, even this new, more accessible Alchemist will not appeal to all tastes.

Jonson follows a classical dramatic structure to frame what looks like almost a celebration of anarchy in his plot. The Alchemist respects the three unities of time (one day), place (the Blackfriars’ house of Lovewit who has left town), and action (Lovewit’s servant and two friends take over the residence as a headquarters for operating their “alchemy” business, involving various fraudulent enterprises that thrive on the gullibility and greed of their victims).

The elaborate unit set, artfully designed by Jonathan Wentz, is rich in detail and scores top marks for functionality and aesthetics. Representing the interior of Lovewit’s house and offering twelve different entrances and exits on two levels, this setting, like a 17th century version of the interior for Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off, puts us squarely in the realm of farcical comedy. The action to take place here is bound to be fast and frenetic.

Nikki Delhomme’s bold, wildly creative costumes, are just sufficiently extreme to enrich the characters’ over-the-top behaviors and personalities. The colorful, memorable wardrobe choices greatly add to the spirit and comedy of the world of The Alchemist. Lighting by Steven Rosen contributes to the relatively clear staging of the chaotic action of this play and also enhances the energetic, buoyant tone, and mood of the piece.

At the core of the action in The Alchemist are the three ‘dirty rotten scoundrels’ — Lovewit’s butler Face (Jon Barker), Subtle the “alchemist” (Bruce Cromer), and a prostitute, Dol Common (Aedin Moloney) — who take over the house while the owner Lovewit (John Ahlin) is away. Although the house is supposed to be kept closed to guard against spread of the Plague, the clever trio entertain a steady stream of eager customers.

First comes Dapper (Jon Sprik), a naïve young lawyer’s clerk seeking a “familiar,” a fairy queen summoned through Subtle’s magical powers, to assist Dapper’s gambling ventures. Then Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) appears, begging supernatural assistance for his tobacco business. Next to arrive is the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon (Brent Harris), voracious in his appetites for money, food, and women, and determined to enlist Subtle’s alchemy in acquiring the legendary philosopher’s stone, that turns all metals into gold. Accompanying Sir Epicure is Pertinax Surly (Kevin Isola), a voice of reason and skepticism, who quickly assesses the fraudulence of Face and his cohorts, but, of course, is ignored and scorned by all.

Two Anabaptist religious figures, an angry Ananias (James Michael Reilly) and his colleague Tribulation Wholesome (Raphael Nash Thompson), also prove ready victims in their greedy scheme to see their money turned into gold. Drugger returns and introduces a rich, alluring young widow, Dame Pliant (Kristen Kittel) and her brother Kastril (Seamus Mulcahy) into the mix.

As Face and Subtle battle over the affections of Dame Pliant, Dol, in the guise of a “royal lady” who has gone mad, romances Sir Epicure. Dapper is gagged and blindfolded and hustled off to the privy, where he spends most of the rest of the play. Drugger and Surly, who is now disguised as a Spanish nobleman, join the heated pursuit of the comely widow, and a huge explosion from the alchemy laboratory, offstage left, adds yet another layer to the madcap confusion.

The unexpectedly early return home of Lovewit finally brings the chaos and increasingly feverish, creative machinations of the three con artists to a head, and a hilarious final scene ensues, where Face, back to his actual persona as Jeremy the housekeeper/ butler, must sort out the insanity and explain the bizarre situation to his bewildered master.

The ensemble of thirteen, all experienced Shakespeare Theatre professionals, take on this challenging work with energy, intelligence, and finely honed comedic style. The characters with their particular quirks and vanities come across clearly and memorably. The actors successfully communicate the difficult language here and, under Ms. Monte’s careful direction, the wild convolutions of this zany plot become mostly coherent.

In this summer of darkness for Princeton Summer Theater, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s highly entertaining production of Ben Jonson’s classic The Alchemist is well worth the hour-long trip north to Madison, especially for aficionados of Ben Jonson and classic English theater. Ms. Monte has composed a remarkable adaptation of a masterpiece and staged it brilliantly to win over contemporary audiences. This is a production to garner appreciation and enjoyment of the rarity of “rare Ben Jonson” and to offer hope that his plays will grace 21st century stages more often in the future.

 

August 6, 2014
DOGPATCH, USA: Pappy (from left, Pat Parton), Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft), Daisy Mae (Amber Payne), and Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) enjoy a pause amidst the pandemonium in M&M Stage’s production of the 1956 musical comedy “Li’l Abner” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre through August 10.

DOGPATCH, USA: Pappy (from left, Pat Parton), Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft), Daisy Mae (Amber Payne), and Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) enjoy a pause amidst the pandemonium in M&M Stage’s production of the 1956 musical comedy “Li’l Abner” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre through August 10.

It’s “a typical day in Dogpatch, USA,” which means that the menfolk are doing a lot of sleeping, fishing, swapping lies, making Kickapoo Joy Juice moonshine and collecting unemployment, while the women are doing all of the work and looking forward to the Sadie Hawkins Day race when they hope to catch and marry the men of their dreams. The beautiful young Daisy Mae declares her “one aim in life is to be a good wife, and marry Li’l Abner someday!” The “mystical” and pugilistical” Mammy Yokum is “sassiety’s queen,” who “heads the local machine.” Meanwhile her tall, handsome, good-hearted son Abner, a model of innocence in a corrupt, scheming world, spends most of his energy running away from Daisy and other marriage-seeking young women.

Currently playing at Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County College in an M&M Stage production, the 1956 musical Li’l Abner is based on characters created by Al Capp in his long running (1934-1977) comic strip. It features an array of larger-than-life stereotypes of the rural South, of male-female relationships and of heroes and villains in the world of the 1950s.

The original production, with lyrics and music by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul and book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, ran for 693 performances on Broadway in 1956-57, followed by a nationwide tour and 1959 movie. The show has remained popular in schools, colleges, and community theaters, though there has never been a major professional revival. The show includes an assortment of amusing, appealing characters, some memorable musical numbers, and some mostly mild satire that often, in the style of Mark Twain via Al Capp, hits home, even six decades after its composition. Despite this worthy, spirited Kelsey production, however, Li’l Abner does suffer from a bit of creakiness and corniness in the plot, seems a bit dated in its 1950s subject matter and traditional musical comedy style, and, at two hours and 45 minutes, goes on about half an hour too long.

Under the skillful direction of Matt South, the capable M&M (Mike Almstedt and Mike Dilorio, producers) ensemble cast of 26 successfully brings the world of Dogpatch, USA to life. Strong voices and experienced actors in most of the leading roles, along with lively, sure-handed choreography by Laura Murey-Ghaffoor and the capable pit orchestra of 15 under the baton of Charlie DeMets ensure a smooth-running, engaging evening.

The “Typical Day” in Dogpatch, with Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft) and Daisy Mae (Amber Payne) at an enamored yet uncommitted stand-off, quickly spirals into pandemonium when Senator Phogbound (Chuck Denk) arrives to inform the town that the government plans to turn Dogpatch into a nuclear testing ground. Even worse, the evacuation of the townspeople is scheduled to take place before Sadie Hawkins Day, when the local young ladies were all counting on catching their desired mates. Marryin’ Sam (Del Howard), of course, was looking forward to the resulting boost in income.

The only way to save the day is to find something necessary about the town. Could the secret lie in the Yokumberry tonic that Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) has spoon fed to Li’l Abner every day since he was a baby? Li’l Abner courageously heads to Washington D.C. with the secret formula, but General Bullmoose (Tom Bessellieu), a consummate businessman, plans to trap him into marrying Bullmoose’s secretary Appassionata Von Climax (Kristina Lunetta) and acquire Yokumberry tonic for his own purposes. Meanwhile Daisy Mae has agreed to marry Earthquake McGoon (Evan Bilinski) if he will help her to rescue Li’l Abner, and they, along with an animated contingent of Dogpatchers, descend upon General Bullmoose’s mansion and the government testing laboratory, where the eccentric Dr. Finsdale (Joe Zedeny) and his colleagues are working assiduously to use the Yokumberry formula to create a “brave new world” of superior human beings (“Oh Happy Day”). How will Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner ever get together? How will Dogpatch ever survive?

Mr. Kraft and Ms. Payne in the starring roles are a convincing, attractive romantic duo. In duets (“Namely You” and “Love in a Home”) and other individual and ensemble numbers, they present harmonious, beautiful singing, on-target character work and fine chemistry.

Ms. Kutalek’s Mammy Yokum is suitably feisty, energetic, even acrobatic, strong-willed and entertaining, while Mr. Howard, as Marryin Sam, slick and dapper in black hat and suit with blue vest, provides a vibrant character and a dynamic catalyst for several of the best numbers in the show. A polished dancer with a strong singing voice, Mr. Howard leads the ensemble in the hilarious and rousing “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” in praise of the bumbling Confederate general whose statue graces the Dogpatch town square (“Stonewall Jackson got his name by standing firm in the fray./But who was known to all his men as good ol’ ‘Paper Mache?’”), and also in the sharply satirical, and timely — some things never change, at least not for the better — “The Country’s In the Very Best of Hands” and “The Matrimonial Stomp.”

Mr. Bessellieu’s General Bullmoose delivers a forcefully dramatic caricature of “the military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned against, and his two signature numbers, “What’s Good for General Bullmoose” (“is good for the USA”) and “Progress Is the Root of All Evil,” help to reveal and develop this charismatic villain.

Other colorfully striking characters populating the production include Mr. Parton’s laid-back Pappy Yokum (with interesting resemblance to Jerry Garcia), Mr. Bilinski’s powerfully threatening McGoon, Ms. Lunetta’s alluring Appassionata, and Mr. Zedeny’s zany Dr. Finsdale. The supporting ensemble, representing a range of experience and talent, displays fine vocal accomplishments, simple and appealing choreography, and amusing characterizations of the eccentric, zealous Dogpatchers and others to keep the evening moving with energy and focus.

Mr. Almstedt’s brightly-colored set design is functional and effective in helping to create the several different locales in Dogpatch and Washington, D.C., though more speedy set changes would be helpful in driving the plot forward and keeping audience focus. Robert Rutt’s lighting, Louisa Murey’s costumes and Nick Mastalesz’s sound all coordinate together smoothly to bring Al Capp’s wacky world to life on the Kelsey stage.

All in all, M&M’s Li’l Abner — though a bit corny, a lot dated, occasionally tiresome — nonetheless delivers an enjoyable evening of lively music, captivating characters, witty satire, and entertaining humor.

M&M’s production ofLi’l Abner” runs for one more weekend, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, August 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 10, in the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Call (609) 570-3333 or visit www.kelseytheatre.net for tickets and information.

 

July 23, 2014
The Bucks County Playhouse’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” will run through August 10 at 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Call (215) 862-2121 or visit BCPtheater.org for show times, tickets, and further information.

The Bucks County Playhouse’s production of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” will run through August 10 at 70 South Main Street in New Hope, Pa. Call (215) 862-2121 or visit BCPtheater.org for show times, tickets, and further information.

The Bucks County Playhouse summoned all the appropriate muses last Friday night for the opening of its current production of Christopher Durang’s highly acclaimed comedy, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. It’s a wonderful script, cleverly combining Durangian absurdity and hilarity with Chekhovian references (starting with the names of the three protagonists), a certain tone of poignant melancholy and a richness of characterization.

Also intriguing is the notion of the playwright himself playing the role of Vanya and the proximity of the theater just a few miles from the “lovely farmhouse in Bucks County” where the play is set, with numerous local references, along with Mr. Durang’s usual vast quota of humorous contemporary pop culture allusions throughout the evening. Production values here are consistently strong, and the Bucks County Playhouse (BCP), refurbished and reopened two years ago after a two-year hiatus, seems to be on a roll with high quality Equity productions (Mothers and Sons, starring Tyne Daly premiered at BCP last season before debuting on Broadway four months ago). Marilu Henner and Deirdre Madigan lead a top-flight cast in Vanya and Sonia…, under the skillful direction of Sheryl Kaller, who also directed the debut of Mothers and Sons.

A beautiful summer evening on the banks of the Delaware seemed to indicate all the planets and muses aligned, but the mother of the Greek muses, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, was a conspicuous no-show. Mr. Durang, at several points during the evening forgot lines, derailed in the middle of a long climactic monologue, and needed prompting from off-stage. His characterization of the middle-aged Vanya was appealing, mostly on-target and effective, and he has, in the past, successfully taken on major roles in his own works on stage, but here, the lapses undermined the power and credibility of the character and caused problems for both audience and other actors.

Tales of famous actors “going up” on their lines are legendary, but there is the inescapable irony of this happening to the playwright who created the lines, in a character who, like his creator, is a middle-aged Bucks County resident and who voices much of the playwright’s wit, humor, and attitude towards contemporary life. Spencer Tracy’s terse advice to actors — “Remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture,” at least the first part, is not to be scoffed at, and let’s invoke the mighty Mnemosyne to bestow her gift of memory on future performances.

The three protagonists here are middle-aged siblings, given names from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters — Vanya (Mr. Durang), Sonia (Ms. Madigan), and Masha (Ms. Henner) — because their professor parents were enthusiasts of community theater and Chekhov in particular.

The action of the play takes place in the sunroom, vividly and realistically presented in great detail in Lauren Helpern’s fine set, of the old family farmhouse where Vanya and Sonia have lived for their whole lives. From the sunroom, characters can look out on a pond, as they eagerly await — still waiting hopefully at the end of the play — the appearance of a propitious blue heron.

Early in the first of two acts, Masha, a narcissistic, movie-star actress who has been gallivanting around the world being a celebrity, arrives with her much younger boyfriend Spike (Jimmy Mason), an aspiring actor who was “almost cast in the sequel to Entourage, Entourage 2,” and specializes in taking off his clothes and parading around in his underpants.

Also appearing is a wildly dramatic cleaning lady Cassandra (Mahira Kakkar), who reveals an array of psychic powers, blood-curdling prophecies, and excruciatingly painful voodoo techniques. Nina (Clea Alsip), a star-struck ingénue from next door also drops in, much to Masha’s dismay, on invitation from Spike.

Masha, who has been financially supporting her siblings, announces — shades of Chekhov, and, yes, they do have a cherry orchard — “I’ve decided to sell the house.” Vanya and Sonia are devastated, but Masha, ever self-absorbed, moves forward with her plans to attend a local costume party as Walt Disney’s Snow White, with Spike as her Prince Charming and her siblings as attendant dwarves. She has, characteristically, brought all the requisite costumes with her.

As the action proceeds through the evening into the next day, Masha’s efforts to self-promote and hold onto Spike meet with some surprising obstacles, and Vanya and Sonia both experience potentially life-changing moments. As in Chekhov, in some ways it seems as if “nothing happens,” but indeed something meaningful does happen for all of the characters, and, in Mr. Durang’s play, those happenings keep the audience laughing throughout.

This vastly entertaining Bucks County Playhouse production in many ways compares favorably with the 2012 McCarter Theatre world premiere production that went on from Princeton to Lincoln Center then Broadway, where it enjoyed a long run and numerous awards including the Tony for Best Play.

Ms. Madigan’s Sonia is extravagantly funny and sympathetic, larger than life in her Chekhovian gloom and world-weariness (“I’m in mourning for my life”), delightfully energized in her anger and animosities, poignantly moving in her desire for love, attention, a life. She is especially memorable in donning tiara and sequins for the costume party to defy her sister and play the role of evil queen in the mode of Maggie Smith, then later in a tour-de-force extended phone conversation with her first-ever prospective suitor.

In the prima donna part, written for and performed by Sigouney Weaver in the McCarter production, Ms. Henner brings her own star-studded credentials — Broadway, movies and TV, most memorably perhaps in the long-running TV series Taxi. She embraces the aging, ego-centric starlet role with panache, and contributes a new, more appealing, more human dimension or two to the characterization.

Mr. Mason’s hilarious boy toy Spike provides an occasionally shocking, sexually-charged glimpse of the new generation and creates an entertaining incongruity in the Chekhovian setting and a source of sharp conflict for the older generation.

Ms. Kakkar in her flamboyant, attention-grabbing role and Ms. Alsip in a more understated, realistic part, both provide strong support and contribute significantly to the eventual outcome of events.

Ms. Kaller has directed with finesse, fine comic timing, and an intelligent balance between the serious and the hilarious. The ensemble interacts credibly and effectively, and we do care about these three engaging, aging siblings, as they struggle to work out their individual destinies.

This production does need the blessing of the goddess of memory and the advice of Spencer Tracy during the next three weeks of its run, and audience members who saw the McCarter-Lincoln Center-Broadway production will certainly miss the brilliant David Hyde Pierce, who originated the role of Vanya. But the script is a masterpiece of comic writing, one of the best from the pen of one of the finest American playwrights of the past fifty years, and Ms. Kaller and company have provided an evening rich in laughter and dramatic interest — well worth the trip to Bucks County.

 

July 2, 2014
SCOUNDRELS IN COMPETITION: Lawrence Jameson (Steve Lobis, right) and his protégé ­Freddy Benson (Travis Przybylski) wager over who can first win over and extract $50,000 from a rich American soap heiress, in Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s revival of the musical comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing in Hopewell.

SCOUNDRELS IN COMPETITION: Lawrence Jameson (Steve Lobis, right) and his protégé ­Freddy Benson (Travis Przybylski) wager over who can first win over and extract $50,000 from a rich American soap heiress, in Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s revival of the musical comedy “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playing in Hopewell.

“What you lack in grace, you certainly make up for in vulgarity,” the suave con-man Lawrence Jameson advises his young rival Freddy Benson, as the two compete for supremacy in the swindling of rich heiresses on the French Riviera in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, playing through July 26 at The Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell.

A Broadway hit of 2005 starring John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, based on a 1988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels re-emerges here with a cast of seasoned area professionals along with a contingent of young and talented Rider College performers — all under the able direction of Robert Thick.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, book by Jeffrey Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, is funny and engaging. But, like its main characters, a couple of scurrilous international charlatans, the show, under a veneer of suaveness and style, does at times lack grace, and it does occasionally push the boundaries of good taste with an abundance of silly shtick and bawdy humor. Mr. Thick and company have taken on a big, challenging, difficult production.

So this week you’ll get two reviews, two perspectives.

The Good News

The protagonist explains his philosophy of the art of the con in his opening number. “Give Them What They Want,” he says, and last Saturday night’s sold-out audience appeared to be thoroughly entertained from pre-curtain desserts to final bows, responding with frequent loud laughter and applause. The show is at times hilarious, as Lawrence and Freddy take on multiple guises and disguises in pursuing their romantic and financial interests. There is much clever dialogue, with richly inventive, amusing, and outrageous song lyrics.

The cast of ten is well rehearsed, extremely versatile — with most taking on multiple roles — and skilled in acting, singing, and dancing. The older veterans blend well with the energetic, attractive younger performers. The motley array of characters is interesting and engaging, the plot takes a number of intriguing twists and turns, and the evening passes swiftly and pleasantly.

Mr. Thick knows his craft and directs with a swift pace and a deft touch. The simple, brightly colored set design serves to move the action by spinning a large staircase and wall through 18 scenes, as the action shifts to different interior and exterior locales throughout the elegant Riviera resort town.

The music, though hardly memorable, is mostly tuneful, with at least three or four strikingly clever and entertaining numbers. The pit band, under the direction of Philip Orr, with three keyboards, a bass and a percussionist, is thoroughly professional and consistently strong in support of the soloists and ensemble members.

There are abundant reasons why this show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and 10 Drama Desk Awards and ran for a year and a half, followed by a year-long national tour from 2005 to 2007. But,

The Less Positive Perspective

There are also problems, with both the show itself and the Off-Broadstreet production. The humor misfires at least as often as it hits the target — sometimes just through inanity, sometimes in a tiresome flatness, sometimes in its tastelessness. The lyrics are often more corny than clever, the musical score fails to offer a single number that resonates in the memory, and there is some unevenness in the power and quality of the voices here.

Though Mr. Thick has indeed staged the action resourcefully, the seams sometimes show in this frugal production, as performers spread themselves a bit thin in taking on many different roles; the scenery — literally and figuratively — at times creaks; and what should pass for the luxury and polish of the rich and famous on the Riviera sometimes looks a bit shabby here.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opens with the debonair Jameson (Steve Lobis) in the process of working his art on Muriel Eubanks (Melissa Rittman), a bejeweled American heiress. Posing as a prince and aided by his friendly local gendarme, Andre Thibault (Michael Lawrence), Jameson has no difficulty in quickly acquiring the lady’s jewels and affections. “What Was a Woman to Do?” Muriel laments in chorus with a small support group of sympathetic women.

Jameson then decides to take on the coarse, brash, young Freddy (Travis Przybylski) as an apprentice con artist, and Jameson proceeds to demonstrate his craft on an Oklahoma oil heiress, Jolene (Milika Cheree Griffiths). In order to extract himself from an imminent marriage, he enlists the services of his protégé to play the role of the prince’s mentally defective brother.

Next to arrive on the scene is purported American soap heiress, Christine Colgate (Ally Hern), and the bet is on. Who can be the first to extort $50,000 from her? The battle of the two scoundrels quickly comes to a head in a dramatic Act One finale, as Freddy poses as a paralyzed wheelchair veteran in need of a $50,000 operation from a distinguished Viennese doctor. And who should suddenly appear at the Riviera resort, but Jameson in the guise of the illustrious Dr. Shuffhausen himself.

Both scoundrels are taxed to their limits in the ongoing deceptions, stings, and desperate battles for one-upmanship. No spoilers here, but more than a few twists and turns ensue, and the action-packed second act even features a comically romantic subplot, with Muriel and Andre, before it reaches its surprising finale.

As the aging virtuoso con man, Mr. Lobis is convincing, comical, poised, and consistently in character, with relentless resourcefulness and the requisite “supreme confidence.” His voice is sturdy and strong. His expressive reactions are fun to watch in his varied interactions.

He delivers his most memorable number, however, when caught in an uncharacteristic, serious, vulnerable moment in the second act, as he confesses, in a romantic ballad, that “Love Sneaks In.”

The rivalry between Lawrence and Freddy is especially entertaining, fast-moving and rich in bristling repartee:

“Freddy, what I am trying to say is know your limitations.”

“Which are?”

“You’re a moron.”

Mr. Przybylski’s Freddy, pink-cheeked and youthful in an over-the-top, rock-star mode with bouffant hair and aggressive demeanor, lives up to his billing of “Great Big Stuff,” as his hilarious signature number is titled. He threatens to steal the show with his energy and comical, larger-than-life persona (though his scene as the “prince’s” mentally defective, lascivious brother crosses the boundaries of good taste). He and Ms. Hern provide another highlight of the evening, accompanied by the vibrant, sure-footed chorus, in “Love is My Legs,” one of several amorous encounters during the evening.

Ms. Hern’s Christine is appropriately charming and focused, though not always strong enough vocally to embrace fully this powerful leading lady role. More successful, albeit in a supporting role, is Ms. Griffith’s Jolene, who plays to the hilt the bright-eyed, straight-from-the-prairie, husband-seeking Oklahoma oil heiress, complete with a chorus of country-and-western line dancers and a spoof on the musical “Oklahoma.”

Ms. Rittman’s Muriel and Mr. Lawrence’s Andre supply further strong support, some deft footwork, and a diverting, romantic second-act interlude.

Emily Elliott, Sarah Whiteford, Sean Magnacca, and Robert Risch, all first-rate Rider College-trained performers, make up the talented, attractive ensemble, taking on four, five, six, even seven different roles apiece throughout the evening. Julie Thick has choreographed the enjoyable dance numbers here, and, though occasionally spread thin — needing perhaps another member or two, this ensemble is vocally, dramatically and physically, kinesthetically up to the challenges of the demanding show.

Ultimately, Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s spirited, ambitious, at times scintillating production of this flawed musical romp provides a diverting evening. You might not find yourself humming the tunes, and you might not care too deeply about these two-dimensional scoundrels and their shenanigans. But, especially with Princeton Summer Theater dark this season, fans of musical comedy will find it worth the short trip to Hopewell to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and to celebrate Off-Broadstreet’s 30years (and 238 shows!) of popular, entertaining theater — and delicious desserts too.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” runs through July 26, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, and dessert served from an hour before curtain time. Call (609) 466-2766 for reservations and further information or visit www.off-broadstreet.com.

 

June 25, 2014
BIRD WHISPERER: The endangered mangrove hummingbird is one of the subjects of Jared Flesher’s documentary “Field Biologist,” being screened Saturday at Princeton Public Library as a special event of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Mr. Flesher followed Hopewell Township resident Tyler Christensen in his travels through Costa Rica, where he found rare species.

BIRD WHISPERER: The endangered mangrove hummingbird is one of the subjects of Jared Flesher’s documentary “Field Biologist,” being screened Saturday at Princeton Public Library as a special event of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Mr. Flesher followed Hopewell Township resident Tyler Christensen in his travels through Costa Rica, where he found rare species.

While shooting the documentary Sourlands a few years ago, filmmaker Jared Flesher was having trouble getting some needed shots of birds in the forest. A friend suggested someone he thought would be able to help.

“He said, ‘You have to meet Tyler Christensen, he’s the best,” recalled Mr. Flesher, who has screened Sourlands and The Farmer and the Horse at previous Princeton Environmental Film Festival (PEFF) showings. “I got in touch with him and we went into the woods together. Sure enough, he found birds that would otherwise have been really hard to see. We got some great shots.”

A friendship developed between the two men, and inevitably, another film. Field Biologist, Mr. Flesher’s account of Mr. Christensen’s bird-researching venture to Costa Rica, will have its New Jersey premiere this Saturday night at the Princeton Public Library. At the screening, a special event of the PEFF, the two men will be on hand to answer questions after the 7 p.m. showing in the library’s Community Room.

Mr. Flesher, who is 31 and lives in East Amwell Township, followed Mr. Christensen, 22, a resident of Hopewell Township, through travels to the cloud forests of Monteverde and the mangrove swamps of the Nicoya Peninsula. In the film, Mr. Christensen comes up with a plan to try and help save the highly endangered mangrove hummingbird.

Talking about his colleague last week, Mr. Flesher was clearly enthusiastic. “This is a guy who loves the natural world,” he said. “When you go out into the woods with him, he’s an incredible communicator. He finds birds, bugs, frogs, and snakes, and he can tell a really interesting story about everything he finds.”

The fact that Mr. Christensen failed biology in high school is an irony not lost on Mr. Flesher. “Tyler wasn’t a great student. He didn’t really know how he was going to put his passion for nature into a career,” he said. “But he got really interested in studying birds. He just kind of traveled a bit, and did some rock-climbing. He was working at a couple of places in New Jersey doing bird-banding. He eventually decided to pick up, one winter, and head down to Costa Rica, and he started doing his own research on migratory birds. No background, no degree — just amazing passion.”

Field Biologist has dual themes. “There’s the age-old question of ‘What should I do with my life,’ and finding your way,” Mr. Flesher said. “And then there is the bigger story, which is that scientists say we stand to lose 50 percent of the species on earth in this century due to habitat destruction, climate change, and over-harvesting. There is definitely a bio-diversity crisis. My goal is to bring up some of these issues and tell the story through Tyler’s eyes, focusing not just on the problem but on why we should bother to save what we have left. It’s ultimately a positive story about the natural world.”

Mr. Flesher trailed Mr. Christensen in Costa Rica two winters ago. “We spent eight weeks there,” Mr. Flesher said. “The plan was ‘wherever he goes, I go.’ So I just followed him. We were chasing incredible birds, snakes, and butterflies. It was really special, which I hope comes through in the film.”

Susan Conlon, Princeton Public Library’s Youth Services Team Leader and the librarian in charge of the PEFF, said the showing of Field Biologist this weekend is part of an effort to broaden the popular annual event, which takes place in January. “We want to expand the reach of the PEFF and continue to screen even more films year-round,” she said in an email. “It is also exciting to have the opportunity to present new films like Field Biologist, and for the film to have its New Jersey premiere with us, with Jared and the film’s subject, Tyler Christensen, here for a question and answer session.”

Admission to the screening is free. Visit www.princetonlibrary.org or call (609) 924-9529 for more information.

 

May 14, 2014
BACK ON STAGE: Charles Wiley, center, who was in the original cast of “Our Town,” visited the cast of the current revival of the play at George Street Playhouse on May 3. He is pictured with Aaron Ballard, left, who plays Emily Webb; and Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, who plays the Stage Manager.(Photo by Jackie Brady)

BACK ON STAGE: Charles Wiley, center, who was in the original cast of “Our Town,” visited the cast of the current revival of the play at George Street Playhouse on May 3. He is pictured with Aaron Ballard, left, who plays Emily Webb; and Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, who plays the Stage Manager. (Photo by Jackie Brady)

He was in the cast of two Pulitzer-Prize-winning plays, performed during the golden age of radio, and entertained the troops at USO shows during World War II. But Charles Wiley has never rested on his show business laurels.

This 87-year-old, who splits his time between New Jersey and California, also spent years as a journalist and photographer, covering 11 wars in 100 countries and getting arrested eight times in the process. There was a stint in the life insurance field, too. And he once ran for Congress.

But Mr. Wiley’s 13-year show business career figures prominently in his extraordinary memory, even though he was just a kid when he was cast as Wally Webb in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town 76 years ago. The play about an average American town in the early 20th century is currently being revived at George Street Playhouse through May 25. Its world premiere was at McCarter Theatre, and it went on to Broadway before winning the author a Pulitzer.

On May 3, Mr. Wiley traveled from his Sayreville home with his 13-year-old grandson to attend a performance of the drama at George Street Playhouse. After meeting the cast, he was moved enough to send a note of appreciation, writing, “It was a trip that brought tears to my eyes — from sheer emotion, not sadness. I was reminded: ‘There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.’ That’s easy to forget when you’re caught up in modern day-to-day living.”

This isn’t the first time Mr. Wiley has been asked to appear at a revival of Our Town. When McCarter Theatre marked the 50th anniversary of the play, he was invited to attend and was introduced after the show. “It looks like I’ll be doing this every 25 years,” he joked during an phone interview from his home in California.

“Ninety-nine percent of my friends don’t know I used to be an actor,” he said. “But I worked steadily for 13 years, from the time I first walked on stage at age seven until I joined the Navy. I was the only actor in the world in the original cast of two Pulitzer-Prize winners. The other was The Old Maid, in 1934. Very few people remember that play, which was made into a movie starring Bette Davis.”

It all started for Mr. Wiley in vaudeville, where as a youngster he was part of a standup comedy routine with his father. “Vaudeville was already dying by then,” he recalled. “This was a period when they would have four acts and a movie. By 1933, it was over.”

The father and son transitioned into radio, where they worked constantly. By the time Our Town came along, Mr. Wiley was a seasoned show business veteran of 11. His recollections are what one might expect of a child that age.

“My biggest memory at the Morosco Theater was being adopted by the guy who owned the Piccadilly ticket office, who by the way was one of the Damon Runyon characters based on real people,” he said. “He used to see me coming to work all the time with my baseball glove. One day he said, ‘Hey Butch, what are you doing with a baseball glove half a block from Times Square?’ After that he kind of adopted me, taking me to ball games, and introducing me to the players. It was a kid’s dream world.”

Mr. Wiley also remembers the pre-Broadway tryouts of Our Town at McCarter, where the notoriously difficult director Jed Harris worked the cast so late into the night during rehearsals that they ended up sleeping on the floor underneath the seats.

Mr. Wiley’s parents were personal friends of Thornton Wilder. “We used to visit him in Connecticut,” he said. “I was a kid, so I didn’t appreciate it at the time. But I think Our Town is one of the great plays. It reminds me of Seinfeld, because it’s about nothing. It’s just life.”

After the Broadway run of Our Town, Mr. Wiley was among those in the cast to join the road company. “In those days, usually the original cast would stay for the road company, except for the top stars. And you’d go all over the country,” he said.

His show business career was over by the time he returned from the Pacific after World War II. “I never looked back, never thought of going back,” he said. There was one major opportunity to get back on stage, when he was offered the part of Officer Krupke in a production of West Side Story. “I had too many other commitments,” he said. “But that was fine with me.”

 

April 16, 2014
SUBVERSIVE SCHEMERS: Figaro (Adam Green) and Suzanne (Maggie Lacey) plot together to foil the lustful Count and finally hold their wedding ceremony in McCarter Theatre’s production of Pierre Beaumarchais’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” second half of “The Figaro Plays” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through May 4. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and further information.(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

SUBVERSIVE SCHEMERS: Figaro (Adam Green) and Suzanne (Maggie Lacey) plot together to foil the lustful Count and finally hold their wedding ceremony in McCarter Theatre’s production of Pierre Beaumarchais’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” second half of “The Figaro Plays” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through May 4. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and further information. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Pierre Beaumarchais is best known, at least in this country, as the author of two plays that were adapted into two of the most famous operas in the repertory, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The plays themselves, rarely produced in the United States, have remained, until now anyway, mostly unfamiliar to American audiences. It is the mission of McCarter Theatre and translator/adaptor/director Stephen Wadsworth to change that situation with their delightfully rich, incisively staged productions of both of those plays, running through May 4 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. 

These are period pieces, and Mr. Wadsworth’s elaborate, painstaking staging, with an extraordinarily fine cast of 19 and a first-rate production team, effectively welcomes the audience into the world of 18th century Europe, while at the same time appealing powerfully to 21st century sensibilities, in his dynamic translation/adaptation of the original and in the company’s formidable abilities to communicate the meaning, emotion and humor of the originals.

In addition to bridging the 18th and 21st centuries here, Mr. Wadsworth, leading director of opera and plays throughout Europe and the United States (including, at McCarter, a trilogy of plays by Marivaux, Goldoni’s Mirandolina, Moliere’s Don Juan, Coward’s Private Lives and Design for Living and Francesca Faridany’s Fraulein Elise) and director of the acting program for singers at Juilliard School, delivers with spirit and skill Beaumarchais’s fine combination of hilarious farce, poignant romance, and scathing social-political satire.

The world of “The Figaro Plays,” as McCarter has named this two-play event, does offer a number of the qualities of opera. There is actual music and singing in both plays, as, realistically, part of the plots, and the dramatic elements here are heightened and intensified. These characters are both realistic and larger-than-life, as are the drama and the comedy. That heightened reality and intensity are vividly reflected in the broad acting styles and in the carefully researched, artfully composed designs of the set by Charles Corcoran, the amazing costumes by Camille Assaf, and the dramatic lighting by Joan Arhelger.

Frequent asides to the audience, occasionally expanding into dramatic monologues and soliloquies by major characters, further enhance the operatic effects and skillfully communicate the humor, emotion, and politics of these memorable individuals.

Though opera lovers may at times find themselves missing the beautiful arias of Rossini and Mozart, and at times even singing along in their heads with the opera music that parallels the action of the plays, Beaumarchais’s Barber and Figaro, as Mr. Wadsworth and company decisively demonstrate here, warrant attention and ample appreciation in their own right, as something less sentimental and more edgy: rich, hilarious, and subversive farce, poignant character drama with powerful social criticism and political assaults. As Louis XVI prophetically admonished, “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be pulled down first.”

The Barber of Seville presents a stock comedic plot, one frequently employed by the Italian commedia dell’arte of Beaumarchais’s day. It is the story of the Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe), assisted by Figaro (Adam Green), his former servant now the local barber, and his courtship of the beautiful Rosine (Naomi O’Connell), the ward of old Doctor Bartolo (Derek Smith), who wants to marry her himself. The action of the play involves the Count’s amorous endeavors, mostly driven by Figaro (an Arlecchino figure in the commedia dell’arte), to outwit the austere Bartolo (Pantalone in the Italian comedy). It’s a sure-fire comedic situation with timeless appeal, but Beaumarchais, and Wadsworth, take it a step or two further.

It’s the servant, and title character, who takes center stage here, as Figaro — self-reflective and questioning, constantly challenging those in superior social positions — devises numerous ingenious schemes to get the better of Bartolo, insinuate the Count into Bartolo’s house and Rosine’s heart, and derive some personal benefits along the way!

Before the wild finale is achieved, Figaro’s machinations require two different disguises for the Count, as a drunken soldier seeking lodging at Bartolo’s house then as a music teacher to instruct Rosine. Also required are the outmaneuvering of Bazile (Cameron Folmar), meddlesome, eccentric singing teacher and Bartolo ally; secret messages intercepted; surreptitious entrances and exits through bedroom windows; mistaken identities; and much rich dramatic irony and hilarity as the tension rises and the audience observes the surprised characters’ reactions to the wild proceedings.

The Marriage of Figaro (1778), written four years later than The Barber, though banned from production until 1784, takes place at the Count’s chateau, three years after the action of the earlier play. The Count, married to Rosine for three years at this point, is seeking other romantic adventures, including a liaison with Figaro’s fiancée Suzanne (Maggie Lacey).

Longer, with more characters, scenes, intrigues, and plot twists than The Barber, The Marriage of Figaro, in the play as in the opera, opens in the room in the chateau that the Count has selected for Figaro, his valet, and Suzanne, the countess’s maid. Figaro is taking measurements for their matrimonial bed and Suzanne is preparing to warn her future husband of the Count’s plans to revive the obsolete droit de seigneur that would allow the Count to sleep with Suzanne on the night of her wedding.

Figaro is furious and quickly makes plans to foil the Count’s intentions and keep Suzanne to himself. Complicating matters is the aging housekeeper Marceline (Jeanne Paulsen), who wants to marry Figaro herself and, for leverage, holds an old contract that demands marriage if funds are not paid back. Marceline, a significant figure as Bartolo’s housekeeper in The Barber, enlists her former employer to help her, and Bartolo, of course, is still resentful of Figaro’s trickery that helped to win Rosine for the Count three years earlier.

Numerous other entertaining distractions, mostly of romantic nature, arise as the Countess (Rosine) laments the falling off of her husband’s affections; the lovesick young page Cherubin (Magan Wiles, in a trouser role) expresses his boyish passion for Fanchette (Betsy Hogg), the gardener’s daughter, and for Rosine, thereby inciting the Count’s outraged jealousy; the Count actually experiences some self-reflection and growth as a character; Marceline’s endeavors meet with an astonishing obstacle; Bazile meddles some more to complicate matters; a wonderfully wild courtroom scene presided over by the incomparably hilarious judge Brid’oison (Frank Corrado), followed by an even wilder nighttime garden rendezvous scene ensues; and Figaro, throughout, struggles tirelessly to out-scheme the Count and direct the proceedings to his advantage.

From top to bottom, the ensemble, 10 for Barber and an additional nine for Marriage, could not be better. These are experienced, consummate professionals — all credible in their eccentricities, all well versed in the requisite classic style, all with carefully calibrated comic timing and the appropriate energy to bring across the comedy, the drama, and the satire to the audience.

Mr. Green stands out with his boldness and winning manner in his masterful manipulations of his fellow characters, of the plot, and of the audience. He fulfills Mr. Wadsworth’s description of the character of Figaro as “irrepressible, resourceful, practical, empathetic, and full of joy.”

The authoritative Mr. Bledsoe is on target throughout the two plays in his multiple moods and guises as the amorous Count. Ms. Campbell is a warm, appealing Rosine, later countess Almaviva, and Mr. Smith succeeds in delivering a three-dimensional characterization of Bartolo that transcends the stock Pantalone figure.

Mr. Folmar’s Bazile is consistently funny and fun to watch in both plays, and Ms. Lacey as Suzanne proves a charming, outspoken, intelligent, and formidable counterpart to her fiancé. Ms. Paulsen’s Marceline, with a role expanded in Mr. Wadsworth’s adaptation of Barber, serves as a humorous and also strikingly serious spokeswoman for the plight of women and one of at least three outspoken, articulate and highly accomplished female characters in “The Figaro Plays.”

“He offered me strategies for survival in adverse circumstances,” Mr. Wadsworth writes in his director’s notes about the character Figaro. With his subversive humor and his skill in undermining the pretensions and privileges of the aristocracy, Figaro also helped to promote social equality and precipitate the French Revolution — dazzling evidence of the power of theater!

These plays, with their period settings, their extensive verbiage which requires close attention to appreciate the humor and plot, and their length — two hours and twenty minutes for Barber, three hours and ten minutes for Marriage — may not suit all modern tastes, but The Figaro Plays are a remarkable achievement for Mr. Wadsworth and the McCarter Company and they provide two brilliant, funny, entertaining and memorable evenings at the theater.

McCarter Theatre’s productions of Pierre Beaumarchais’s “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” will be playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through May 4. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www. mccarter.org for show times for the two plays, tickets, and information.

 

 

April 2, 2014
WHO’S AUDITIONING WHOM?: Thomas (Dan Ames), director of the play-within-the-play, helps his intriguing auditioner Vanda (Evelyn Giovine) to fasten her dress in Theatre Intime’s production of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

WHO’S AUDITIONING WHOM?: Thomas (Dan Ames), director of the play-within-the-play, helps his intriguing auditioner Vanda (Evelyn Giovine) to fasten her dress in Theatre Intime’s production of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

Bursting into the audition room, she looks like every director’s worst nightmare: crude, ditzy, desperate, needy, self-pitying, late, and completely wrong for the classy role. She seems like a composite of all the auditioners that Thomas, the earnest, cerebral director, has been complaining about in his phone conversation with his fiancée in the opening minutes of Venus in Fur, David Ives’s 2010 tour de force of wit and eroticism currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus 

Thomas needs a female lead for “Venus in Fur,” his adaptation of the classic sadomasochistic 1870 novella by the Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name has given us the word “masochism” — but at this point Thomas is packing up to go home.

Thomas does not go home. The would-be actress, strangely and conveniently named Vanda, the name of the female character in the play, persuades Thomas, through force of will and multiple manipulations, to let her read the first three pages of the script with him.

The ensuing 90 minutes becomes a psycho-sexual battle, with the erotic tensions of the two characters in Thomas’ play blurring with the tensions between the director and this increasingly beguiling actress in the ongoing audition. He is auditioning her, but she turns out to have a surprisingly thorough knowledge and understanding of the script and its passionate characters, not to mention a huge bag full of necessary costumes and props — and, increasingly and mysteriously as the play progresses and the balance of power swings back and forth, she also seems to be auditioning and directing him — for what purposes, remains to be seen.

Mr. Ives, a New York playwright perhaps best known for his brilliant collection of one-acts comprising the off-Broadway hit All in the Timing (1993), is a master of wit, of word play and dramatic twists and turns, of comic timing, and of the intellectual acrobatics that blur the lines between theater and life. He’s at the top of his game in Venus in Fur (2010), a Broadway hit and Tony Award nominee for best play. The dialogue is sharp, realistic, and funny. The two characters are thoroughly engaging, as they struggle for dominance and power, and their relationship develops. The tension rises and the plot moves swiftly towards its climax.

Evelyn Giovine as Vanda is magnificent. The challenging role requires so many shifts, subtle and unsubtle — from the desperate, classless auditioner to the sophisticated woman who knows what she wants, from scrappy, foul-mouthed 21st century New Yorker into her sophisticated character role as Vanda von Dunayev and her constant maneuvers and manipulations, erotic and otherwise, as she contends with Thomas. Whether in leather skirt, black lingerie and dominatrix black boots, or elegant white 19th century gown, Ms. Giovine, a Princeton University sophomore, is captivating — in more than one sense of the word, funny and sometimes charmingly, sometimes frighteningly, believable, as she progresses from chatty, gum-chewing, wanna-be actress chick to no less than an evocation of the mighty love goddess Aphrodite (Venus) or even the vengeful god Dionysus with his Bacchae bent on cruel revenge against any mortal who denies his dark powers.

Ives’ dialogue includes much dispute between Thomas and Vanda about the quality of the play she is auditioning for and whether it is pornography or great literature. Venus in Fur, in the hands of a lesser playwright or a less talented female lead, could easily have misfired or descended to tasteless, pornographic titillation. This production, however, under the intelligent, capable direction of Princeton University junior Julia Hammer, seldom lets down the erotic tension, but remains tasteful and entertaining throughout.

Princeton graduate student Dan Ames as Thomas, though overshadowed at times by the powerful, charismatic Ms. Giovine, is a worthy counterpart and a credible young director, finding himself in a power struggle with this Venus figure and caught between the erotic urgings of Vanda and the insistent phone calls of his fiancée. The sexual chemistry between Thomas and Vanda is palpable and potentially powerful, but needs to build as the performers settle into these demanding roles in the second weekend on stage.

Matt Seely’s bare-bones, rehearsal-room set effectively creates the stark world of director and auditioner, with Marissa Applegate’s lighting to help shift the mood when necessary and to give Vanda, who operates the fuse box light switches, yet another means of control over the proceedings. Annika Bennett’s costumes – Vanda’s and Thomas’, though they never stop “acting,” actually change back and forth from 1870 setting to real life attire several times during the course of the evening — are spot on, and vital to the depiction of these characters and particularly of Vanda’s increasing dominance.

The production does need, and with luck will see in its second weekend on stage, some clarification — in the line delivery by Mr. Ames and in articulate projection of Ms. Giovine’s European accent in the role of Dunayev — and quickening of the pace, which occasionally drags, at times diminishing, rather than building the erotic tension.

Thomas auditions Vanda. Vanda auditions Thomas, as the characters in Thomas’ play intertwine with the characters of the director Thomas and the actress Vanda. Intrigues surrounding the identity and psychology of these characters deepen, as the stakes rise and the roles — director-actress, Kushemski-Dunyaev, master-slave, man-woman — reverse again and again.

Venus in Fur is hard to beat for a combination of powerful drama and captivating psychosexual fun and games. With David Ives, Evvy Giovine, and the fine Intime company as the games masters/mistresses, the evening is a memorable one.

 

March 19, 2014
THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE: This poster for a new short film by Princeton resident Charles Evered shows actors Marty James and Joshua Fardon. The film will have a free screening on Saturday, March 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton before it premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles next month.(Courtesy of Charles Evered)

THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE: This poster for a new short film by Princeton resident Charles Evered shows actors Marty James and Joshua Fardon. The film will have a free screening on Saturday, March 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the Arts Council of Princeton before it premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles next month. (Courtesy of Charles Evered)

Out, a 19-minute long comedy begins as its main character, Raymond Bilotti, arrives home to find the County Sheriff knocking on his door, and progresses through a series of bizarre scenes to what shall be called a satisfying conclusion, so as not to give away too much and spoil the fun. Out will screen at the Arts Council of Princeton this Saturday, March 22, at 3:30 p.m. 

“The screening is free and there is bound to be a party atmosphere,” said playwright, director and screenwriter Charles Evered. “There will most definitely be Bundt cake.”

If you are wondering why Bundt cake, you’ll have to see the film to find out.

“Marty James plays Raymond, a down on his luck ‘everyman’ who in less than twenty minutes faces the prospect of losing his home, his mother, and his most closely held secret, not necessarily in that order,” said Mr. Evered, who lives in Princeton with his wife Wendy and their two children, and works in Los Angeles.

“I have the longest commute but it’s worth it to have my kids grow up in Princeton,” said Mr. Evered, in a telephone interview, Monday. “We love the schools and we love the history and all that the town has to offer and when we had our kids, John is 13 and Margaret is 14, we didn’t want to raise them in Los Angeles. Besides I have family here,” said the filmmaker who grew up in Bergen County.

Mr. Evered is no stranger to the Arts Council where he was an artist in residence 2006/2007.

Out, which Mr. Evered wrote and directed and his wife Wendy produced, was shown to the cast and crew at Disney Studios in Burbank last month and will premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Los Angeles in late April.

Like most short films, it was made on spec, with professional actors. “Shorts are made for the love of it. They are great fun to make. Out was shot in four days with a budget of $6,000,” said Mr. Evered.

Written shortly after Mr. Evered had completed a much darker feature film, the thriller, A Thousand Cuts, which was nominated for a Saturn Award and starred Academy Award nominee Michael O’Keefe, Out riffs on several meanings of the word “out.” Beside the “gay” connotation of coming out, and the rather charming almost defunct usage of having a gay old time, there’s also being “kicked out,” being “out on a limb,” and being “found out.”

The character Raymond just happens to be gay, said Mr. Evered, who acknowledges that while this features in the film’s plot, it is not what he would call “integral” to the machinations of the story. “We all have secrets, we all face pressures and each and every one of us will end up having to deal with loss,” said the filmmaker who eschewed pressure from one publicist to label the film as a “gay” film and market it as such.

“That struck me as kind of funny at first,” said Mr. Evered, who feels that his film is much more in tune with having a “gay old time” with a few laughs as well as a few moving moments. “But the idea of ‘labeling’ the film itself in a marketing strategy seemed at odds with the spirit in which we made it in the first place. Because our film isn’t about being gay, it’s about being human. Our hope was it would be a non-issue. And I’m pleased to say that thus far, it is. At the screening at Disney, it never came up. In various private screenings on both coasts, no one bothered to mention it. It’s a new film rather than a new gay film.”

“If I continue to have any control over the film at all, I will never let it be ‘categorized’ or cornered or swept under the rug and into a marketable niche. Because to me, it’s a story about all of us and any of us, at any time in our lives. The fact that we don’t feel compelled to create special categories or marketing strategies seems to me to imply nothing but progress. And a kind of progress we can all be proud of,” said Mr. Evered.

Out was shot using a digital camera which allowed for exactly the sort of intimacy the filmmaker was aiming for. “I come from a background in the theater so I like to stay close to my characters,” he explained. “Besides being less expensive, a small digital camera requires a small crew and is easy to maneuver.”

He credits his wife for finding the veteran actress Gloria Leroy, who plays Raymond’s mother. “Gloria is not all that mobile and had to be persuaded into the part,” said Mr. Evered. “I told her that she would have to stay in bed for two days and that we would supply everything she could want. She was doted on by everyone.”

Other films by Mr. Evered include Adopt a Sailor, starring Emmy winners Peter Coyote and Bebe Neuwirth.

Why doesn’t the public see more short films? “Not all festivals have short films and they are not all that easy to see, although You Tube has changed that,” said Mr. Evered. After Out has been shown at festivals, it will be made available via You Tube, he said.

The Arts Council’s showing is the east coast premiere of Out. The screening is free and open to the public. For more information, please go to: www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

 

February 26, 2014
COMMUNICATION GAPS: Mary (Erin O’Brien, left) leaves anonymous notes about “the fragility of their marriage,” as she prepares to leave her husband, and George (Chris Littlewood), a linguist, can’t find the words to convince his wife to stay, in Theatre Intime’s production of Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 1.

COMMUNICATION GAPS: Mary (Erin O’Brien, left) leaves anonymous notes about “the fragility of their marriage,” as she prepares to leave her husband, and George (Chris Littlewood), a linguist, can’t find the words to convince his wife to stay, in Theatre Intime’s production of Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive” at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 1.

The central dilemma and reigning irony of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive, is that George, a linguist, scholar and preserver of dead and dying languages, can’t come up with the words he needs to say to his wife Mary to keep her from leaving him. 

Currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, The Language Archive, a 2010 off-Broadway hit, combines farcical humor with emotional depth, absurdity with poetry, and some thought-provoking reflections on love and language, eating, and Esperanto.

The five-member Intime undergraduate ensemble, under the direction of Princeton University junior Annika Bennett, is capable and, for the most part, up to the challenges of this wild, 20-scene play, but some problems with staging and diction need further attention in order to make all these whirlwind scenes clear to the audience.

As George (Chris Littlewood) struggles to deal with the sudden departure of his wife Mary (Erin O’Brien) he shares with the audience his despair and bewilderment. He also speaks eloquently of his dedication to recording and saving languages before they disappear. He is devastated by the loss of his wife, but until this point in his life, the death of languages — “we are talking about a whole world, a whole way of life. It is the death of imagination, of memory.” — has affected him much more deeply than any human loss. The playwright, the child of Korean immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles and never learned Korean. Ms. Cho has stated that this play was inspired by her sense of loss at never having learned the language her parents spoke.

Meanwhile in the language laboratory, the Language Archive, George remains oblivious to the fact that his young assistant Emma (Emily Hornsby) has fallen deeply in love with him. Amidst these serious emotional tensions, enter Resten (David Drew) and Alta (Abby Melick) from somewhere overseas, long-time married couple and last surviving speakers of Elloway. This duo, in the tradition of the bickering Bickersons, the Honeymooners and Al and Peg Bundy of Married with Children, threaten to steal the show with their hilarious verbal sparring. To George’s chagrin, they insist on speaking in English, claiming that the language lends itself most effectively to the expression of their hostile sentiments towards each other.

As the plot proceeds in absurdist, rollercoaster fashion, it develops a sharper focus on Emma — in her Esperanto lessons with her histrionic instructor/confidante (also Ms. Melick); in an encounter with Mary, who has become a baker; in a fantasy meeting with the founder of Esperanto (also Mr. Drew), an eye doctor who tries to persuade her to fall out of love; and in her ongoing, unbalanced relationship with George. The plot also continues to follow Resten and Alta, and George and Mary.

Though at times difficult to understand with their heavily accented lines, Mr. Drew and Ms. Melick create vivid, larger-than-life characters in Resten and Alta and deliver the boisterous humor that carries this show. Their comic timing is excellent, as is their versatility in creating an array of additional supporting characters.

Mr. Littlewood portrays a convincing academic, passionate in his linguistic pursuits and mostly detached, becoming even pitiful, in his personal relationships. Ms. O’Brien’s frustrated, unhappy wife wins some sympathy in her separation from George and later fulfillment in her bake shop.

Ms. Hornsby’s Emma, despite some diction lapses when lines run together, develops as an interesting, appealing character, pursuing her true love with courage and dedication.

Set design by Michaela Karis proficiently provides six different playing areas to accommodate the multiple scene shifts during the course of the evening and to represent different locales: language lab, George’s study, train station (later becomes the bakery), hospital room, and language instructor’s office. The upstage areas, however, office and hospital room, are too far removed for optimum character projection and comprehensibility.

Ms. Bennett has directed this sweet, funny, intelligent play with understanding and sensitivity. Balancing humor and serious feeling is difficult here. The coolness of the protagonist, the multiplicity of scene shifts, and the often dominant farcical element do compromise the best efforts of this promising young playwright and the dedicated Intime ensemble to establish significant emotional depth. It is difficult to care as much as the play wants us to about the passions of George and Mary and even Emma, but The Language Archive provides an entertaining, stimulating evening, with some first-rate humor. 

“The Language Archive” will run for one more weekend, with performances Thursday and Friday, February 27-28, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 1 at 2 and 8 p.m. For tickets and information visit www.princeton.edu/utickets or www.theatreintime.org or call (609) 258-5155.

 

January 22, 2014
Theater rev 1-22-14

SINNED AGAINST AND SINNING: Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett), former Negro League baseball star, confronts death and an abundance of domestic and social adversities in McCarter Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” through February 16.

James Earl Jones was the star of the original production of Fences, at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, where it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play. Then it was Denzel Washington, in a 2010 Broadway revival, in the larger-than-life role of Troy Maxson, his name itself evoking the grandeur and tragic fall of the unforgettable protagonist of Wilson’s drama. But in McCarter Theatre’s searing, deeply moving production of this masterpiece, it’s August Wilson, the playwright himself, who emerges as the star of the show.

This poetic drama is set in 1957 in the early years of the civil rights movement and focuses on the struggles of a former Negro League baseball player, now a Pittsburgh sanitation worker, and his family. The dialogue is at the same time natural and poetic, and so powerful, humorous, and moving. Wilson, who died in 2005 after completing his highly acclaimed Century Cycle of plays set in every decade of the twentieth century, frequently cited the influence of the blues on his work, and Fences — in its sympathetic, suffering characterizations, in its bitterness and solace in alcohol, humor, language, music, and humanity — resonates with the rich life and tone of a blues song that sticks in the mind and soul.

Fences depicts a family in conflict. Troy (Esau Pritchett), the middle-aged patriarch, is at odds not just with the society that barred him from the major leagues through the 20s, 30s, and 40s and consigned him to a job carrying garbage, but also with his wife Rose (Portia) and sons, 34-year-old Lyons (Jared McNeill) from a failed earlier marriage and 17-year-old Cory (Chris Myers). Troy is indeed a victim of the racism of his time and environment, but he is also a victim of his own bitterness, his personal excesses, and his wary detachment from family and friends.

Early in the first of two acts Troy and Cory clash over Cory’s hopes of gaining a football scholarship to college. Troy, who hit 43 home runs in one season in the Negro League but was born too soon to break the color barrier in the Major Leagues, distrusts the white man’s enticements for Cory and also harbors his own resentment and jealousy over this opportunity that he never had. The conflict grows increasingly hostile as Cory attempts to assert his independence from Troy’s influence, and Troy, seeing his authority and control challenged, fails to accept the changing world of America on the cusp of upheaval, along with his son’s entrance into adulthood and his own aging.

The shattering of the fragile family is complete when Troy comes home, early in the second act, to announce to Rose that he has fathered a child with another woman.

August Wilson and his characters are brilliant storytellers. In the tradition of Arthur Miller — Death of a Salesman in particular — where intense family conflict plays out its tragic drama of the common man against a background of powerful destructive social forces, Fences is a story about families, a marriage and, especially, through the generations, fathers and sons, with the sins of the fathers repeatedly being visited on the sons. It is also a play about the power of speech as our greatest weapon in shaping our stories and our lives and in battling against oppression and death.

In McCarter’s production, in association with Long Wharf Theatre where it opened last month, Mr. Pritchett as Troy is convincing, powerful, charismatic — as a man past his prime, finding himself in a new world, on unfamiliar ground with wife and sons. He’s a storyteller, angry but loving his family, his friends, his life, and fighting, as a great athlete fights to win the game, his battle to turn back mortality. Mr. Pritchett, of course, lacks the physical magnitude of James Earl Jones (Rose describes Troy: “when (he) walked through the house he was so big he filled it up”) and the instant star- recognition of Denzel Washington, but Mr. Pritchett thoroughly engages the audience in his joy and loves, his frustrations, and his anguish. He radiates a gift for spell-binding storytelling, a warm humor and a virtuoso musician’s gift for delivering the music of Wilson’s rich poetic language.

Portia establishes Rose as a worthy counterpart and counterbalance to Troy. She is enormously sympathetic as she moves through the rich territory of emotions required as wife and mother in her fight to keep her family together. Troy and Rose may be the most finely, fully, and convincingly developed husband–wife portrayal in all of Mr. Wilson’s ten plays.

“Jesus, be a fence all around me every day,” Rose sings as she hangs out the laundry at the start of the second scene. The fence that Troy and Cory are building emerges on both sides of the stage as the action progresses. It becomes a symbol of the security and protection — from white America, from his own inner demons, from death itself — that Troy seeks. And it also represents Rose’s struggle to keep the family together against the forces that threaten to pull it apart.

Mr. Myers’ Cory provides the third side of the immediate family triangle, and, though not as fully developed as the character of Troy, Cory faces many of the strains, aspirations, and frustrations of his own generation. Growing up in the shadow of his formidable father, Cory, though in many ways his father’s son, strives bravely, in Wilson’s version of a classic oedipal battle, to break out and achieve manhood on his own terms.

As Troy’s friend Bono, Phil McGlaston creates an engaging, credible, and interesting character foil, a grounded follower in contrast to Troy and his high-energy rashness. He is a worthy confidant, a sharp, funny, sympathetic listener and counterpoint to Troy’s tales, and a concerned friend.

Jared McNeill’s portrayal of Lyons, Troy’s musician older son, vividly and effectively provides yet another dimension in the play, as well as another perspective on the father-son dynamic, with son fully adult and clashing with his father in both values and life style.

In the magnificent role of Gabriel, G. Alverez Reid creates this wounded World War II veteran with great sensitivity and winning, loving detail. Having lost a significant part of his brain in the war effort and often needing help from his brother Troy, Gabriel is a sort of peddler, prophet, and angel of St. Peter, making sporadic appearances at key points in the story. With the character of Gabriel, as with Troy himself in his dark musings on death and the devil, this play, though never leaving its firm grounding in particularities of time and place, does at the same time transport its audience to a realm of spirituality where devils and death, St. Peter and the angels are brought to life.

Appearing in the final scene of the play, set in 1965, eight years after the first eight scenes, Taylor Dior as the seven-year-old Raynell, delivers a spot-on characterization of Troy’s youngest offspring and an appealing hope for a new generation.

John Iacovelli’s dirt back yard, back-porch, worn house setting in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 1957, pre-television, pre-electronics, provides the ideal locale for the action of the play. A big tree stands on stage right with a bat leaning against it and ball made of rags tied to it for batting practice. Vivid warm lighting by Xavier Pierce, realistic costumes by ESOSA, and sound by John Gromada contribute rich background and resonance to the characters and concerns of the play.

Though this production does gain great strength from its focus on the ensemble, rather than risking the distractions associated with casting a big-name star, the director of this production is indeed a big star, Phylicia Rashad. An accomplished Tony Award-winning actress, experienced performer and director of Wilson’s work (including Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean on Broadway in 2004 and at McCarter the following year) as well as the acclaimed Claire Huxtable in “The Cosby Show” on TV for many years, Ms. Rashad possesses an extraordinary list of accomplishments on stage and screen, and, in recent years, as director. Her direction here brilliantly manifests her respect for the play and the playwright, bringing out powerfully and vividly the music and meaning of Fences and its characters.

In 2007, in a foreword to Gem of the Ocean, Ms. Rashad commented on Mr. Wilson, “He understood the power of sound and rhythm inherent in words, speech and music. He worked in alignment with that power …. August’s characters are defined by speech — the rhythms of speech serve as emotional building blocks that support the progressive movement of the play.”

In this exciting production of Fences at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Ms. Rashad, with her top-flight design team and ensemble of seven fine actors, has faithfully and imaginatively brought to life the power, beauty, and value of August Wilson’s great drama. McCarter has just announced a one-week extension of this run of Fences, to February 16. It’s a dazzling production of one of the great plays of the 20th century. Those additional seats will fill up fast. Don’t delay.

 

 August Wilson’s “Fences” will run through February 16 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. For tickets and information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

 
November 13, 2013
TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: Chris (Peter Giovine) pleads with his mother (Uchechi Kalu) to face reality, move on, and leave the past behind, as his father (Jordan Adelson) looks on in Theatre Intime’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 16.

TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES: Chris (Peter Giovine) pleads with his mother (Uchechi Kalu) to face reality, move on, and leave the past behind, as his father (Jordan Adelson) looks on in Theatre Intime’s production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (1947) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 16.

In the manner of Aeschylus, Sophocles’ Oedipus and the great tragedies of Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) is a drama of retrospective analysis. Written and set in the wake of World War II, All My Sons, Miller’s earliest success, just two years before Death of a Salesman, depicts one tragic day in the life of the Keller family. When the play begins, most of the key events of the story have already taken place. The dramatic action on stage is an exploration and revelation of a past that shapes and weighs upon the tortured lives of the main characters.

All My Sons, currently playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is the story of Joe Keller (Jordan Adelson) and his wife Kate (Uchechi Kalu). It takes place “in the outskirts of an American town” on a Sunday in August, 1946. Their son Larry, an air force pilot, has been Missing In Action for three years, but Kate cannot give up hope and let the family move on with its life. Joe, jailed three years earlier when his aircraft engine business issued damaged cylinder heads that resulted in the deaths of 21 pilots, has recently been exonerated, released, and returned home, where he lives with his wife and 32-year-old son Chris (Peter Giovine), who is back from military combat service in Europe.

Recently arrived and staying at the Kellers’ house is Annie (Nadia Diamond), formerly engaged to Larry and currently anticipating a proposal from Chris, who has been corresponding with her by mail over the past two years. Annie, who grew up next door to the Kellers and whose father was a partner with Joe in the aircraft engine manufacturing business and who is still serving time in the penitentiary, serves as a catalyst figure in the drama, forcing the family to confront the truths of Larry’s death, of Joe’s guilt, and of the necessity of moving forward with their lives.

Miller’s characterizations are deep, complex, and interesting. The plot, focused on the single day when the crises of the past emerge to engulf the Keller family, is carefully articulated and intense. And the issues here — ethical dilemmas of capitalism, corporate greed and its human consequences, family strife, dealing with loss — are universal, perhaps even more timely today than they were 65 years ago.

Unfortunately, however, although Theatre Intime, with a cast of 10 undergraduates under the capable direction of sophomore Oge Ude, does present a worthy production of this difficult work, the plot occasionally creaks, some dialogue seems forced, and the characterizations do not always ring true.

All My Sons is similar to Death of a Salesman, Miller’s next and most famous play, in many ways: characters, dramatic structure, theme and tragic impact. The plotting of the earlier play, however, seems more contrived, some dialogue less realistic, the monologues less gripping, and the parent-son relationships less emotionally gripping than those in the later play.

The young Intime company will certainly settle into its rhythm and its characterizations more fully in its second weekend, but opening night last Thursday revealed some difficulties in the realistic portrayal of both generations of troubled characters.

Mr. Adelson as the central figure is a fascinating picture of denial, attempting to elude, to rationalize the ugly truth of his past. “That’s business. That’s a mistake, but it ain’t murder.” Experienced and comfortable on stage, and well-rehearsed, Mr. Adelson delivers this brusque character with clarity and force, though the character stretch across 40 years and an unfathomable depth and darkness of life experience, at times proves daunting and makes this protagonist less than fully credible.

Ms. Kalu, facing similar challenges, succeeds in creating a convincing and sympathetic wife and mother, grasping and communicating Kate’s struggles to accept her son’s death, her husband’s guilt, and the necessity of burying her false hope and moving forward with her life.

Mr. Giovine’s Chris is uneven in his performance, though mostly appealing and intriguing in his anguished relationships with his father and mother, his haunting memories and survivor’s guilt from the war, and in his budding romance with his brother’s former girlfriend. As Ann, Ms. Diamond provides a worthy match for Chris and a welcome freshness and air of truth from outside the tortured Keller family.

Charlie Baker lends helpful support as Ann’s brother George, a lawyer, arriving in the second act with vital, devastating information just received from his father in prison. Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn as a meddling, troublesome neighbor; Evan Coles as her beleaguered husband; Blake Edwards and Tess Marchant as another, contrastingly upbeat neighboring couple; and the spirited young Adam LeCompte as a boy in the neighborhood — all provide capable, significant support to the principals in the first act, with less stage time in act two, as the drama narrows its focus to the Keller family.

Matt Seely’s sturdy, functional unit set depicting the Keller backyard, with symbolic apple trees (“Larry’s tree” is struck down in a storm just before the play opens.) and a small trellised arbor upstage is realistic, except for an expressionist touch on a stage right wall covered with newspapers, presumably the fateful newspapers from three years earlier that broadcast the crime and punishment of Joe Keller and his partner.

Lighting by Hannah Yang and Rebekah Shoemake and appropriate 1940s costumes by Joane Joseph effectively complement the actors and plot. Ms. Uge’s direction unifies the production elements effectively, moves the action along smoothly, and mostly sustains the audience’s interest in this, at times, long-winded drama.

“The tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing — his sense of personal dignity,” Arthur Miller wrote in his 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man.” “From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in his society.”

That is the struggle of Joe Keller and also of Willie Loman and of all the tragic protagonists of a cluster of other great plays written by this giant of the 20th century American Theater. In All My Sons the ambitious Intime company brings to life this classic tragic pattern of inevitable, shocking climax, followed by catharsis and restoration of the moral order with accompanying lessons for society.

 

October 30, 2013
ART IMITATES ART: This painting by Robert Beck is one of seven he did during the renovation of the Bucks County Playhouse in 2012. The artworks are part of the current exhibit at the Michener Art Museum detailing the history of the theater.

ART IMITATES ART: This painting by Robert Beck is one of seven he did during the renovation of the Bucks County Playhouse in 2012. The artworks are part of the current exhibit at the Michener Art Museum detailing the history of the theater.

The Grace Kelly exhibit that opened in Doylestown, Pa. this week isn’t the only attraction drawing crowds to the Michener Art Museum. In a cozier space connected to the lavish Kelly show, “Local Mill Makes Good: Celebrating 75 years of American Theater at the Bucks County Playhouse” is taking visitors back through the rich history of this iconic New Hope, Pa. institution, which thrived for decades, faltered in recent years, and has since been restored and reborn.

Among the diverse collection of materials on display are artworks by Al Hirschfeld, Robert Beck, Ben Solowey, Edward Redfield, and Charles Child (brother of Julia Child’s husband Paul); a blown-up photo of the audience from the 1965 opening of The Hostage, which starred Julie Harris; set models from The Lion in Winter, which starred George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, numerous photos and posters, and a plaque from 1956 listing plays that had been performed at the theater to date. David Leopold, curator of the show, said the plaque was found in a dumpster.

“The hardest part of doing this show was that not many people kept any of the history of this place,” he said during a tour of the exhibit as it was being hung last week. “A lot of things were thrown out. But with some sleuthing, we were able to locate this wonderful stuff that came from private and public collections.”

Mr. Leopold, who has organized exhibitions for the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is a walking encyclopedia of the Playhouse. He has divided the show into five different sections, taking visitors from the theater’s founding in 1939 to its recent re-establishment as a leading artistic center.

Housed in an old grist mill on the Delaware River, the Playhouse has been the scene of debuts and appearances by such stage and screen stars as Helen Hayes, Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, John Lithgow, Walter Matthau, Tyne Daly, Audra McDonald and Angela Lansbury, who was honored by the theater this past Monday. Another veteran was Ms. Kelly, whose appearance in the 1949 play The Torch Bearers, written by her uncle George Kelly, gets a spot on the exhibit wall.

It is a popular misconception, Mr. Leopold said, that the Playhouse was founded by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Oscar Hammerstein III and other theatrical luminaries who had homes in Bucks County. The real credit goes to a man named Henry Chapin and orchestrator Don Walker, who joined forces to start a summer theater at the old mill, which had ceased operating in 1938.

“Walker ran into Chapin and his group at a party,” Mr. Leopold said. “They started talking and realized they had a similar interest in starting a summer theater that would be a kind of social gathering place for the community as well as an economic engine. They started the theater in the fall of 1939. Raising the initial $10,000 was easy, but then they had trouble. The only person they got to invest was [playwright] Moss Hart, who gave them $100. I’m sure he gave them the money just to get them out of his house.”

The first production was Springtime for Henry (fans of the 1968 Mel Brooks film The Producers will recognize that title as the inspiration for Springtime for Hitler), starring Edward Everett Horton. While the night before the opening a sodder lamp on the roof almost started a fire, the show opened on schedule and the Playhouse was on its way. A famous drawing by Mr. Hirschfeld that appeared on the front page of the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section, documenting the event, is part of the display.

While summer theaters were popular at the time, the Bucks County Playhouse was unlike others. “It was the kinds of things they did there that made it unique,” Mr. Leopold said. “It was a laboratory for new theater and young actors, not just for established plays like Springtime for Henry, which Edward Everett Horton had done for years. Neil Simon premiered plays there. Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn first appeared together for the first time in The Fourposter on that stage before it went to Broadway.”

According to Jed Bernstein, the Playhouse’s current producing director and the man considered mostly responsible for its recent revitalization with the Bridge Street Foundation, the exhibit captures that premise. “It pays homage to the founding of the Playhouse, but it brings it all the way up to our time,” he said. “We’re returning to first principles — doing exactly what the founders did back in the 1930s and 40s. Their strategy turns out to be incredibly doable. All iconic great institutions retain their relevance. That’s what’s so thrilling.”

By the 1990’s, the Playhouse was presenting community theater rather than Actors’ Equity productions. Its reputation had suffered. In 2010, the state of the economy and flood damage caused by two major storms had forced the theater to close. But a public/private partnership headed by Mr. Bernstein led to an extensive renovation, and the theater reopened in July of 2012. Since then, it has been earning positive reviews, both from critics and the community.

This year, the Playhouse will have performances on its stage approximately 210 days. “In only a season and a half, we’re already up to 75 percent capacity,” said Mr. Bernstein, who will depart in January to become the president of Lincoln Center. His successor will be announced in the next few weeks, he said.

The Michener exhibit will include actual pre-renovation seats from the old Playhouse, as well as footage from productions staged in 1949. Some film clips of Ms. Lansbury, Tyne Daly, actor Eli Wallach and others reminiscing about their days at the theater are also part of the display. A whole section is devoted to playwright Neil Simon, whose Barefoot in the Park debuted on the stage.

The show is focused on the history of the Playhouse, but acknowledges the present and the future. “It’s not just about the past, when stars performed here because they were doing good quality theater to a discerning audience,” Mr. Leopold said. “It also celebrates the Playhouse today, because that same thing is happening.”

“A lot of things envisioned back in the 1940s are coming true again,” added Mr. Bernstein. “It’s a place for stars, for plays, and for young people to get their start. There is live music again. We work with Actors’ Equity. For theaters like this in relatively small communities that are historic in some ways, I think this is a model that will be copied. It apportions the risk in the right place.”

“Local Mill Makes Good” continues at the Michener Museum through March 2. Several special events and lectures are planned. Visit www.michenerartmuseum.org for details.

 

October 23, 2013
SERPENTINE SITUATIONS: Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, left) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), spirit demons who have changed their shapes from snakes into young maidens, plan to descend from their mountain cave and mingle with mortals in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The White Snake,” adapted by Mary Zimmerman from a classic Chinese fable and playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place through November 3.

SERPENTINE SITUATIONS: Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, left) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), spirit demons who have changed their shapes from snakes into young maidens, plan to descend from their mountain cave and mingle with mortals in McCarter Theatre’s production of “The White Snake,” adapted by Mary Zimmerman from a classic Chinese fable and playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place through November 3.

Transformations are a recurrent theme in Mary Zimmerman’s distinguished career as playwright and director. As a writer, she brilliantly adapts stories, myths, and fables for the stage: her Odyssey at McCarter in 2000; Metamorphosis, based on Ovid’s tales, a Tony Award winner on Broadway in 2002; The Secret in the Wings (2005), from an array of European fairy tales and Argonautika (2008), the story of Jason and the Argonauts, both also at McCarter. But even more striking than her clever literary transformations is her wildly creative visual magic in bringing these stories to life on the stage. 

The White Snake, based on a classic Chinese fable and currently playing at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre in a lavish, aesthetically stunning production, embodies that theme of transformation in every facet of its plot and production. Snakes, of course, among other rich symbolic associations, are known for their shape shifting and skin shedding. And certainly a defining characteristic of the theater art itself is its capacity for transformation, as it uses the tools of light, sound, film, props, set, costumes and make-up to transform actors into characters and creatures, and bare stages into multiple worlds.

From the outset, Ms. Zimmerman and her White Snake protagonist are bent on taking the art of transformation to new levels. Originally produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, The White Snake is the story, whose origins are more than a thousand years old, of a snake who studies the Tao, learns how to fly through the air and travel through the clouds, then how to change her shape into that of a beautiful young maiden. She then wishes to leave her mountain cave and visit the world below, where she meets and falls in love with a mortal man.

The story itself has changed shape many times over the years in numerous tellings and retellings — in oral recounting, in novels, plays, stories, opera, and film. In earlier versions the white snake woman is often depicted as villainous. In one version she and her serpent accomplice slaughter a would-be lover and devour his heart and liver. In most versions a religious figure becomes the antagonist representative of the status quo, exposing the disguised snake woman and imprisoning her under a stone pagoda.

In Ms. Zimmerman’s adaptation, and in most more recent versions of the tale, the White Snake, transformed into Madame White, is a sympathetic figure and the fable becomes a love story. White Snake marries a man named Xu Xian and they must battle the intolerance of a fierce Buddhist monk who is determined to expose Madame White and destroy this relationship between an immortal demon and a mortal man.

As she plots her visit, in the guise of a beautiful lady, to the world of mortals, White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) teams up with Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), a fiery, outspoken sidekick who provides moral and physical support throughout the proceedings.

Madame White and Greenie meet a young man, Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), in the park. Madame White uses her supernatural powers to bring on a rain storm so that she and Xu Xian will share an umbrella. Soon afterwards they share their hearts. With Greenie as go-between and procurer of money, Madame White and Xu Xian are soon married and working together in their pharmacy shop.

Their lives are peaceful and happy for a while, and, with Madame White’s supernatural healing powers, the pharmacy thrives, until a visit from Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), the suspicious monk who has heard about a demon white snake missing from her cave in the mountains and about the astonishingly successful pharmacist, casts doubt in the mind of Xu Xian.

The rest of the story follows Fa Hai’s determined efforts to expose White Snake and break up her forbidden relationship with her husband, as Xu Xian and White Snake struggle to overcome his doubts and her deceptions to achieve a true, lasting, loving relationship.

In staging this tale of transformations and the transforming power of love, Ms. Zimmerman, her actors and her production team present a dazzlingly beautiful tour de force of imaginative performance and stagecraft. Dramatic tension here is a notch below that of Ms. Zimmerman’s earlier masterpieces. This story melds abundant narration with intriguing magic, vibrant characterizations, romantic intrigue, bits of humor and intense conflict, but it lacks the richness of the multiple adventures of Odysseus on his journey home and of Jason and his ill-fated quest. Nor can this fable, captivating though it is, match the variety and allure of Metamorphosis’s amazing, titillating Greek myths or the peculiarly dark and fascinating fairy tales of The Secret in the Wings.

The sheer beauty and ingeniousness of the staging, however, does carry the performance, and if the plot is not always riveting nor the resolution fully satisfying, the audience cannot help but enjoy the visual and auditory feast provided here.

Production elements, under the direction of Ms. Zimmerman, are so closely melded with each other and with the performances of the superb acting ensemble that it’s difficult to single out the artists’ individual contributions, but Ms. Zimmerman’s team of actors, musicians, and designers is thoroughly first-rate.

Starting with the snakes themselves — sometimes manipulated by actors in puppet fashion with two sticks, sometimes represented by a row of actors carrying parasols, sometimes appearing in the form of the two maidens themselves with long tails emerging from their clothes — the visual manifestations of the concrete and abstract elements of the story are striking.

Daniel Ostling’s minimalist set relies on billowing silky fabric and the audience’s imagination to create mountains, clouds, rivers; long strips of blue fabric descending from above to denote rain; a parasol carried by an actor for the moon; a single medicine cabinet with its numerous drawers and large jars on a shelf rising from the floor of the stage to represent the apothecary shop, opening up to become Madame White’s bed chamber; colorful, picturesque model boats pulled across the stage to create the dragon festival; multiple light, sound, film, and design elements to create an epic battle with White Snake and Green Snake calling on all their water spirits to flood the monastery and the mountain and engulf Fai Hai and all his cloud spirits; and a striking display of colorfully costumed actors carrying bright lanterns to celebrate the festival of lanterns.

And even more memorable and clever are the visual and musical/sound manifestations of abstract qualities — like doubt, depicted here by the indispensable Emily Sophia Knapp with her extra-long fingernail attachments attacking poor Xu Xian and drumming relentlessly on his head; or love, when Madame White and Xu Xian’s hands first touch while passing the umbrella and the moment resonates with sound, lighting effects and the excited trembling of the romantic pair; or soon afterwards when red rose petals fall from above, a huge red wedding ribbon descends and the bride and groom entwine themselves in the shimmering sash.

Mara Blumenfeld’s colorful traditional Chinese costumes, T.J. Gerckens richly varied, expressive and dramatic lighting design, Andre Pluess’ remarkable original music and sound design with Tessa Brinckman on flute, Ronnie Malley on strings/percussion and Michal Palzewicz on cello in the orchestra pit, Shawn Sagady’s intriguing projections — all contribute invaluably, vitally to the creation of this exotic world and the telling of this strange tale.

As part of the narration of this story, characters at times read from a 1936 book titled Secrets of the Chinese Drama. In traditional Chinese drama there is no scenery, so costumes, music, props and movement take on particular symbolic meaning. According to the book’s preface, “There is so much of imagination and so little reality. So many of the actions are symbolic and so few of the properties are real!” Among the many wonders displayed on the Matthews stage in this beautiful production of The White Snake, there is little wonder that the infinitely inventive Mary Zimmerman would find a fulfilling vehicle for her rich gifts and powers of transformation in this Chinese tale of transforming snakes and transformative love.

 

October 2, 2013
FAMILY TIME: Gertie (Juliet Garrett) takes drastic action to help her amnesiac daughter remember the past and make sense of her life in Theatre Intime’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist comedy, “Fuddy Meers,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 5.

FAMILY TIME: Gertie (Juliet Garrett) takes drastic action to help her amnesiac daughter remember the past and make sense of her life in Theatre Intime’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s absurdist comedy, “Fuddy Meers,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through October 5.

Imagine waking up every morning with no memory of your past, your identity, or your current life. Each day is a new start and a struggle to discover who you are in relation to family and the surrounding world. Theatre Intime’s current production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers takes its audiences on a wild journey in search of memory and truth along with its protagonist Claire, a middle-aged woman suffering from a rare form of psychogenic amnesia.

The world of this play is beyond bizarre. It’s a world of funhouse mirrors. That’s the “fuddy meers,” in the gibberish delivered by one of the characters whose speech is impaired because of a stroke. Claire’s dysfunctional family, with its array of physical and psychological deformities, goes far beyond the Sycamore family of You Can’t Take It with You or the Brewsters of Arsenic and Old Lace into the realm of wacky insanity and whimsical absurdity. Despite the larger-than-life, unsettlingly dark comic tone of the play, however, there is an underlying seriousness and dignity in Claire’s brave quest. The zany excesses of Christopher Durang — Betty’s Summer Vacation, in particular — and the work of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company also come to mind, though Fuddy Meers is less sharp in its dialogue, humor, and social satire than the best of Mr. Durang and Mr. Ludlam.

A capable, energetic Theatre Intime undergraduate ensemble of seven, under the direction of Princeton University sophomore Tyler Lawrence, displays spirit and versatility in tackling this acclaimed 1999 off-Broadway hit. The 11 scenes are fast-paced and entertaining, with abundant laughter, and a sympathetic, engaging central figure.

Fuddy Meers, presenting an adventure-filled day in the life of Claire (Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn), begins as she wakes up in the morning, a blank slate, all memory erased. Her ever-cheerful husband (David Cruikshank) greets her with a cup of coffee and a book containing everything he thinks she needs to know about herself, her surroundings, and her life.

Suddenly a mysterious, scary, limping man (Pat Rounds) in black ski mask emerges from under the bed. He claims to be Claire’s brother and insists on taking her away to protect her from her husband. Claire and the audience are equally confused. The limping man and Claire drive to the house of Claire’s mother Gertie (Julie Garrett), who speaks only in gibberish as a result of a recent stroke, though she thinks and acts with complete clarity.

Next to join the gathering at Gertie’s house is Millet (Steven Tran), a sociopathic criminal who wants to be a zookeeper. He is inseparable from his outspoken, foul-mouthed hand puppet. Soon afterwards the odd assemblage is completed when the pursuing husband Richard and their pot-smoking 17-year-old son Kenny (Matt Barouch) arrive, along with a peculiar, claustrophobic woman police officer, whom they kidnapped after she attempted to stop them en route.

Violence (by knife, pistol, shovel, hot bacon grease, sewing needle, hack saw), humor, and extremes of eccentricity abound, as Claire struggles to overcome her memory lapses and the deceptions and dysfunctions of the characters who surround her in her quest to discover the truth about her past and actual relationship to these people who attempt to control her life.

Ms. Ellis-Einhorn provides a solid focal point for the proceedings. A bit more energy and intensity in this character would help her, the only “normal” character, to capture the audience’s full attention amidst the competing crazies.

Mr. Rounds as the primary antagonist is first-rate and forceful in his volatile, psychopathic demeanor. Funny and frightening at the same time, disfigured in face and behavior, this character drives the plot and consistently commands the audience’s interest.

Mr. Cruikshank’s cheery, Mr. Self-Help-Manual husband is appropriately cloying and amusing in his character incongruities, while Mr. Barouch’s son-from-hell Kenny is on-target in characterization, humorous in his outrageous rudeness and ultimately valuable in his truth-telling.

Ms. Garrett’s high-powered grandmother skillfully handles the demands of extensive dialogue in gibberish and succeeds in communicating with dynamic force and even clarity with her daughter Claire, with the other characters in the play, and with the audience. Mr. Tran and Ms. Coke provide strong support in their sometimes disturbing, often surprising, and consistently amusing, madcap roles.

Mr. Lawrence has directed with understanding, focus, and appropriately swift pacing, though the opening night set changes could have benefited from greater speed and efficiency.

Seen through Claire’s eyes, Fuddy Meers, according to the playwright, is “a world of incomplete pictures and distorted realities.” Set design here by Wesley Cornwall with lighting by Marissa Applegate, original music by Sam Kaseta, sound design by Charlotte Sall, and costumes by Julie Aromi fulfills this goal with minimal unadorned representations of the locales of the play. The set is functional, though a bit more stylization, surrealism, other-worldliness might help to further embrace the mood of this play.

In his notes in the script Mr. Lindsay-Abaire calls this play ”a world of mirrors and memories … a world where mad fun and genuine danger are wrapped around each other.” This youthful Theatre Intime company brings Fuddy Meers to life with energy and talent and offers an evening of memorable madness and entertainment.

 

September 18, 2013
FATHER-DAUGHTER TIES: Catherine (Kristen Bush) and her father Robert (Michael Siberry) struggle with problems of mathematics, insanity, and affection in McCarter Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof,” running at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place through October 6.(Photo by Richard — Termine)

FATHER-DAUGHTER TIES: Catherine (Kristen Bush) and her father Robert (Michael Siberry) struggle with problems of mathematics, insanity, and affection in McCarter Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof,” running at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place through October 6. (Photo by Richard — Termine)

How do you make a play about mathematicians and a mathematical proof comprehensible and interesting to a general audience? Ask David Auburn the playwright and Emily Mann the director of McCarter Theatre’s exhilarating current production of Mr. Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer and Tony winner, Proof.

The “proof’ of the title refers most directly to an apparent groundbreaking proof of a mathematical theorem, and that proof is discovered near the end of the first of two acts. But the meaning of the title expands to the question of whether the young protagonist Catherine, inheritor of her father Robert’s genius as well as his mental instability, can prove that she, not her deceased father, actually devised and wrote that proof.

At the same time, Catherine is seeking proof of the affections of Hal, young math professor and protégé of her father; proof of her sister’s questionable intentions; and proof of her own ability to overcome her depression, doubts and fears, so she can move beyond her father’s death.

So, despite initial appearances, Proof, turns out to be more about human relationships than about mathematics, and the engrossing dialogue, even when mathematicians are talking about mathematics, is accessible and engaging.

This intellectual drama, seasoned with a rich dose of warm, entertaining humor, may provoke thought and discussion about frighteningly close connections between genius and insanity, and it may instigate further provocative commentary on the scarcity of women at the higher levels of mathematics. But the most important issues of this play, the ones that lay claim most dynamically to the audience’s attention and emotional engagement, focus on the 25-year-old Catherine — her relationship with her recently deceased father, her growing affection for Hal, and her bitter clashes with her successful, domineering, sister Claire.

Proof, originally at the Manhattan Theatre Club for five months in 2000, then on Broadway for more than two years, with Mary-Louise Parker and Larry Bryggman in the starring roles, before becoming a 2005 movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, is most essentially the story of Catherine’s coming of age.

Played here with great sensitivity, fragility, and charm by Kristen Bush, Catherine battles with depression, deepened by the death of her father, whose caretaker she has been during his long period of mental instability. She becomes edgy, defensive, even paranoid, alternately angry, suspicious, distraught, then loving and hopeful. Her body language speaks volumes as she wraps herself in her father’s too-large sweater or folds herself up, hunched over in a large chair. Her face glows with love and sadness as she confronts and comforts her father. Her eyes sparkle with laughter and hope as she emerges from her cocoon in connecting with Hal. She bristles with bitter sarcasm in her rancorous quarrels with her sister. The dialogue is spot-on credible, and the characters are richly sympathetic, believable, and appealing.

The action of the play spans a period of about one week, starting from the night before the funeral of Catherine’s father (Michael Siberry), but in nine scenes the play skillfully interweaves the present-day narrative with episodes involving Catherine and her father from the past and from Catherine’s imagination. The play itself is artfully, carefully crafted to make the most of each secret that is revealed, each revelation and twist in the plot, and Ms. Mann’s direction perfectly complements the high-suspense plotting and the fascinating development of characters and relationships. The result is a moving, memorable human drama — funny, touching, and powerful in its impact, especially perhaps for mathematicians, but also for anyone who can reflect on a relationship with father, daughter, lover, or sibling.

The plot here does seem thin, but the suspense is genuine and gripping. Hal (Michael Braun), with dual motivations, encroaches on Catherine’s world. He hopes to find valuable work in the 103 notebooks that Robert left behind and also he is starting to fall in love with Catherine.

Catherine’s older sister Claire (Jessica Dickey) has flown in for the funeral from New York, where she works as a Wall Street currency analyst. A pragmatist and successful businesswoman, she is a striking contrast to her late father and sister. Claire wastes no time in announcing that she’s selling the house and proposing her plans for her troubled sister to move to New York and seek psychiatric help.

As the romance between Catherine and Hal develops, along with conflict between the two sisters, Catherine directs Hal to the notebook containing the historic, earth-shattering proof. The handwriting looks like Robert’s, but he had done no new creative work since his 20s, when the creative spark faded and the madness began to set in. Suspense rises, as the mystery deepens and, in a stunning act-one curtain line, Catherine claims that she wrote the brilliant, barrier-breaking proof.

Mr. Siberry is consistently convincing as the rumpled, white-haired University of Chicago genius mathematics professor. He is funny in his irascible impatience and eccentricity; endearing and sympathetic in his loss of contact with reality and his deeply loving relationship with his self-sacrificing mathematician daughter.

Mr. Braun, the source of many of the witty math jokes in the play, is credible, both as a young, earnest mathematician, with a winning humility and self-awareness, and also as a viable love interest for Catherine.

As the antagonist sister, interloper from another world, trying, it seems, to do the right thing, Ms. Dickey provides a strong voice of “normality” and a formidable obstacle for Catherine to battle as she strives to shape her own life.

Eugene Lee’s inspired set design combines realism with surrealism: a beautifully specific, large, realistic Chicago back porch in early fall is surrounded on the upstage wall by a huge blackboard full of advanced mathematical problems and equations. Thoroughly in-character costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and nuanced lighting by Stephen Strawbridge enhance the realistic effect and help to fully create the world of this play, while Mark Bennett’s creative sound design highlights the drama and supports the varied tone of the proceedings.

Ms. Mann, whose own father was a University of Chicago professor, has directed with loving care, attention to detail, and uncanny ability to highlight the most important moments in the relationships of these four characters and to bring out the rich humanity in this entertaining and emotionally satisfying tale of mathematicians, madness and love.

 

August 7, 2013
COMFORTABLE LIFE OR COMMITTED LIFE?—Convalescing photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Maeve Brady) contemplates her choices in life as she prepares to head back to the war zone, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (2009) at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

COMFORTABLE LIFE OR COMMITTED LIFE?—Convalescing photojournalist Sarah Goodwin (Maeve Brady) contemplates her choices in life as she prepares to head back to the war zone, in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still (2009) at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus for one more weekend.

In the midst of an increasingly heated argument over the question of the individual’s responsibility to reject the comfortable life and to try to make a difference for those who are less fortunate, Mandy confronts photojournalist Sarah and foreign correspondent James. “I wish you’d just let yourselves feel the joy. Y’know? Otherwise…what’s the point?”

The questions hang in the air and remain the central concern of Time Stands Still (2009), Donald Margulies’ engrossing examination of two contemporary couples struggling with the personal, marital and moral choices that will define their lives and relationships. Nominated for a 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, Time Stands Still is a serious, intelligent, fascinating drama, and this extraordinary Princeton Summer Theater company provides an engaging, thought-provoking evening — a theater experience that audiences want to talk about afterwards.

In the past two months the abundantly talented PST troupe has taken its audiences on an adventurous, brilliantly successful journey with four strikingly different shows, each posing its own significant intellectual and theatrical challenges.

From its opening with an exquisite production of the much loved, intimate musical She Loves Me (1963), to a heart-warming presentation of Beth Henley’s hilarious, southern gothic masterpiece Crimes of the Heart (1978), to the wildly farcical, Monty Python-esque murder mystery spoof The 39 Steps (2005) and now the disquieting, contemporary drama Time Stands Still — this youthful, impressively professional contingent of college undergraduates and recent graduates from Princeton University and elsewhere has offered one of the finest seasons in the 45-year history of Princeton Summer Theater.

With only four characters and just one setting, in the Brooklyn apartment of the two protagonists, Time Stands Still is deceptively simple — in some ways the most challenging production of the summer for PST. Though it seems like a small world here, Mr. Margulies, with seven scenes in two acts spanning a period of almost a year, draws his characters in rich, three-dimensional detail. The dialogue is realistic, intellectual, engaging and entertaining.  With the two main characters, James and Sarah, in their late 30s or early 40s, approaching the most difficult stage of their relationship and the unresolvable existential questions of middle age, and the two supporting characters, 25-year-old Mandy and 55-year-old Richard, with no less thorny character dilemmas and relationship issues to grapple with, the requisite stretches here are huge for these actors in their early 20s.

The play begins as James (Brad Wilson) is bringing Sarah (Maeve Brady) home to their New York apartment from the overseas hospital where she has been recuperating from injuries sustained in the war zone on a photography assignment in Iraq. Sarah, strong and determined, though visibly suffering with scars, leg brace and crutches, and James, energetically solicitous and concerned, are obviously together (married by act two) and in love, though frequently in conflict.

Their future, individually and together, hangs in the balance, as the issues proliferate. James is still suffering from the traumas of reporting the Iraq war. He feels guilty because he came home early, leaving Sarah in Iraq. James is eager for a more conventional, less public life—marriage, family, stability. He is working on an article, not about devastating current events, but about horror movies. “I just want to be comfortable,” he tells Sarah later in the play. “Does that make me a bad person?”

Sarah, however, remains unwilling to give up her career. She is committed to her larger sense of purpose. Determined and uncompromising, she is eager to return to work, to the front lines, despite her severe injuries.  Does she need James and the security, comfort and “normalcy” of life in Brooklyn more than she needs the excitement and the moral commitment of her life on the barricades?

These issues and others are brought to the fore and further developed with a visit from their friend Richard (Evan Thompson), a 55-year-old photo editor, and his 25-year-old girl friend Mandy (Sarah Paton). Mandy, from a different generation and seemingly from a different world, exposes the conflict most starkly. Though she admires and remains in awe of Sarah, and they even bond in their mutual respect and understanding, Mandy provides a completely antithetical perspective, as she is ready to give up her job to pursue a conventional marriage, family and life style with her much older spouse.

Ms. Brady in the central role is strong, focused and convincing in her physical fragility, as she contends with her injuries, and in her mental steadfastness. This character is clearly set apart, heroic in her life choices and her ability to stay true to those choices, and Ms. Brady communicates that commitment with powerful presence and delivery. Mr. Wilson’s James effectively displays a wider range of thoughts and feelings as he deals with his trauma, his desire for a more conventional life, his love for Sarah and her adamant dedication to her career.

As Richard, Mr. Thompson plays with assurance the role of authoritative photo editor, older friend and partner to his much younger girlfriend/fiancée. Ms. Paton’s Mandy, though the most accessible role for this quartet in terms of age (25), is the most demanding characterization in terms of dialogue and tone.  Mandy’s youth, inexperience, provincialism and orthodox attitudes clash sharply with the mindset of Sarah in particular and at times of the other characters too. Her girlish attire, the balloons she brings to the ailing Sarah and her patterns of speech and her demeanor all bespeak another generation with more traditional priorities than those of the other three characters.  And yet — and here is where Mr. Margulies’ dialogue may have created an impossibly inconsistent tone and character — Mandy’s character demands to be taken seriously. Sarah may be the praiseworthy heroine of the play, but Mandy’s assertion of the values of marriage, family, children and conventionality resonates strongly and clearly, in a manner that none of the others, not even the stalwart Sarah can ignore or deny.

These four skillful, experienced performers have all distinguished themselves in two or more major roles in previous productions this summer, and here, under the wise, capable direction of Emma Watt, they explore these complex characters and the troubling terrain of this play with energy and focused seriousness of purpose.  These characters have proven their abilities to effect dazzling theatrical magic and convincing character stretches, but here some credibility and chemistry are missing at times as these 20-something actors grapple with their characters’ big questions of middle age or when actors of the same age are working out an age gap of 30 years in their characters’ relationship. Mr. Margulies’ occasionally elusive tone and the plethora of issues here — political, moral, marital, personal, career — further complicates the challenge.

But my quibbles arise partly from the fact that PST’s extraordinary season may have raised unrealistic expectations. Mr. Margulies’ play is rich, intellectually stimulating and entertaining — among his best, dealing with some of the same issues as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends (2000) and the Pulitzer finalists Collected Stories (1996) and Sight Unseen (1991). And Ms. Watt’s production features four superb performers and first-rate production values manifested in Jeffrey Van Velsor’s detailed, thoroughly realistic Brooklyn apartment set, Alex Mannix’s adroit lighting and Annika Bennett’s spot-on costumes.

In discussing his aims in Time Stands Still, Mr. Margulies described his desire “to capture a sense of the way we live now, to dramatize the things that thinking, feeling, moral people are thinking about and struggle with.” He accomplished that ambitious goal and more, and Princeton Summer Theater brings it all to life in this dynamic culmination to their exciting 2013 season.

July 24, 2013
ROMANCE, INTRIGUE AND ABSURDITY: Evan Thompson as the dashing Richard Hannay and Holly Linneman, who plays all three of Hannay’s love interests, strike a pose in rehearsal for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “The 39 Steps,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 28.

ROMANCE, INTRIGUE AND ABSURDITY: Evan Thompson as the dashing Richard Hannay and Holly Linneman, who plays all three of Hannay’s love interests, strike a pose in rehearsal for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “The 39 Steps,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through July 28.

In the opening moments of Princeton Summer Theater’s ceaselessly entertaining The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay, the dashing hero, sits alone in his London apartment. It’s 1935, between the Wars. He is sipping his scotch and soda and suffering the pangs of ennui.

“Picked up an evening paper, put it back. Full of elections and wars and rumors of wars. And I thought — who the bloody hell cares frankly? What does it all matter? What happens to anyone? What happens to me? No-one’d miss me ….” He then decides, “Find something to do, you bloody fool! Something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless. Something — I know! A visit to the theater! That should do the trick!” And his action-packed adventures commence.

True to its iconic source material, which it both spoofs and celebrates, The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from a 1915 detective novel by John Buchan, a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie, and an original concept by Simon Corbel and Nobby Dimon, is a murder mystery thriller. There’s the suave protagonist; exotic, beautiful, and mysterious heroines; unremitting intrigue; a desperate struggle, with the fate of England at stake; narrow escapes; train chases; airplane crashes; treacherous bridges; a dastardly Nazi villain with a missing little finger; and much more.

But this 2005 British hit, still running in the West End, brought to the U.S. in 2008 for a Roundabout Theater production then two years on Broadway, goes far beyond its source material. With minimal set and only four actors playing all — I lost count at 130 — parts here, The 39 Steps becomes a tour de force that revels in the magic of theater and the amazing, inventive, ridiculously implausible act of creating something out of only the performers’ creative imagination and the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.

“Mindless and trivial”? “Utterly pointless,” as Hannay says before heading off to the theater? Yes, indeed, particularly in this rambunctious, outrageous, and whimsical mode — but hard to beat for sheer fun and theatrical virtuosity.

This parody of Hitchcock’s famous movie, with additional allusions to Stranger on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, will resonate with film buffs, but no prior film knowledge is necessary to enjoy this show, which is much more about theatricality than film. In its rapturous embracing of the challenges of staging the unstageable, in its wildly energetic and ridiculously serious commitment to creating the plentiful characters and the murder mystery/spy thriller world of the play, the four actors and their top-flight production team deliver a delightfully engaging and thoroughly entertaining evening.

Jeff Kuperman, busily involved in New York theater, dance, and film over the past year since his Princeton University graduation, has directed and choreographed The 39 Steps with fabulous timing and an unerring comic sense. The melodrama, the high camp, the breakneck pace, the coordination of props, actors, sound, lights, costume changes, and the unremitting physical and verbal humor could easily misfire in the hands of less skilled, committed and talented performers, and production crew. The professional Princeton Summer Theater team is highly focused and carefully, skillfully rehearsed — even more impressive here than in their two fine productions (the intimate musical comedy She Loves Me and the comedic southern gothic Crimes of the Heart) earlier this summer.

After Hannay’s brief opening scene, the plot wastes no time in picking up speed. At the theater Hannay (Evan Thompson) meets a beautiful, mysterious woman (Holly Linneman), who turns out to be a foreign spy. When, in the middle of the night, she lands in his lap with a knife in her back and a map of Scotland in her hand, Hannay quickly realizes he must find the ruthless perpetrators, a clandestine organization called “the 39 Steps.” He also must escape both the authorities who suspect him for murder and the villains who want him dead, and solve this international espionage mystery before vital security information leaves England. The chase is on!

As the debonair hero, Mr. Thompson adopts the perfect balance of camp and commitment, of ironic detachment, and deadly serious involvement in his heroic and romantic quest. He plays almost every spy thriller cliché you can imagine with appropriate panache that is larger than life but never overdone. The age stretch is daunting — Mr. Thompson is a couple of decades away from the age 40ish world weariness of the character as originally conceived, but he blends the Hitchcock and Monty Python styles brilliantly to provide a solid core to the production.

Ms. Linneman, with an eccentric array of wigs and accents, plays all three leading ladies — all stunningly beautiful, all intricately involved in the fate of Hannay, and all straight out of the conventions of the film noir spy thriller tradition. As ill-fated foreign spy, then innocent, amorous, doe-eyed country lass, then savvy woman of the world, she is a worthy counterpart to Hannay. She keeps up her defenses, sparring verbally and physically with Hannay until the end. Ms. Linneman is on target, thoroughly in character — all three characters — while playing the high drama and romance just broadly enough to suit the prevailing tone of spoof and hijinks.

And the other 130 plus roles fall into the capable hands — and legs and faces and every other conceivable body part and vocal distortion and costume piece — of Brad Wilson and Pat Rounds, listed in the program as simply Clowns 1 and 2. These astonishingly versatile performers, who act, sing, dance, and perform all sorts of physical and vocal acrobatics throughout the evening, do not need named-in-the-program leading-character roles in order to steal the show.

Perhaps the greatest delight of watching The 39 Steps comes in observing the imagination and virtuosity of these zany, chameleon-like actors as they instantaneously transform themselves and their settings into whatever this plot-laden script demands. My favorite hilarious transformations include Mr. Wilson’s jealous old crofter husband; all of his outrageous, bewigged, heavily accented gender crosses — the shocked maid, the domineering wife of the villain and the Scottish innkeeper’s wife; Mr. Rounds’ dastardly, pinky-less spy master and heavy-handed Scottish innkeeper; the two clowns’ dazzling simultaneous depictions of train passengers, porter, paperboy, conductor, and policeman; and, of course — quite a character stretch even for these theater magicians, the roles of puddles in the road on the dangerous journey through the Scottish moors. Individually, in tandem and in interactions with the two protagonists, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Rounds provide the audience with an abundance of laughs and surprises.

The production elements here are almost as remarkable as the fine performances. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s minimal set — ladders, chairs, wheeling doors and windows — affords unlimited possibilities and opportunities for this company to display its ingenuity and boundless imagination. (What they do with windows must be seen to be believed.) Laura Hildebrand’s technical direction and Alex Mannix’s lighting design, along with sound design by Mr. Kuperman, all cohere to create this wild romp through a caricatured world of murder mystery and romance. The comic timing—actors’ delivery of lines, gesture, interactions, and physical humor, sound, lighting, props and set movements — is consistently on point.

In the same Monty Python-esque, larger-than-life mode, Annika Bennett and Maeve Brady’s richly inventive, colorful costuming — featuring a wild collection of wigs, hats, and numerous other accessories, and Gordon Jacoby’s dialect coaching skillfully both create and mock the world of The 39 Steps.

Don’t look for interesting character psychology, depth, or development here. Despite the distinguished source material, don’t look for a plausible or even consistently comprehensible plot to keep you on the edge of your seat. But “a visit to the theater” certainly helped Richard Hannay to overcome his ennui, and for sheer entertainment, hilarity, and a joyful tribute to the wonders of theatricality, PST’s production of The 39 Steps is bound to please.

 

July 10, 2013
SISTERHOOD SOLIDARITY: Maeve Brady, Holly Linneman, and Sarah Paton (clockwise from the top) play the three MaGrath sisters, struggling to get through “a really bad day” in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama “Crimes of the Heart,” running through July 14 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

SISTERHOOD SOLIDARITY: Maeve Brady, Holly Linneman, and Sarah Paton (clockwise from the top) play the three MaGrath sisters, struggling to get through “a really bad day” in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama “Crimes of the Heart,” running through July 14 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

“But, Babe, you’ve just got to talk to someone about all this,” Meg urges her younger sister in Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1979). “You just do …. Because it’s a human need. To talk about our lives. It’s an important human need.”

That human need to communicate with others, to talk about our lives, to share our stories, to relive with others the joys and sorrows of our human existence — is not only essential to our humanity. It’s the primary impulse for creating theater, from its roots in ancient Greece to the present, and a pervasive central theme of this tragic comedy.

Crimes of the Heart is the story of one “really bad day” in the lives of the three MaGrath sisters in Hazelhurst, Mississippi in the fall of 1974, five years after Hurricane Camille, and there is enough tragic material here — many different “crimes of the heart,” loves lost and loves abandoned, Granddaddy suffering a stroke, beloved horse struck by lightning, mental disorders, a suicide and other subsequent suicide attempts, domestic abuse, and murder attempts — to overload a classic tragedy. But this play is very funny, in its particularly, darkly humorous way. This masterpiece, which may have exhausted most of Ms. Henley’s best ideas and wildest family stories, is one of the best loved, most frequently produced plays of the last half of the 20th century,

The reunion and bonding of the three sisters, ages 30, 27, and 24, seems to make life bearable, even hopeful, even funny, despite all its distressing calamities. The soul of this play lies somewhere in that powerful sisterhood, that strength of family, that shared past, that opportunity to sit down together and “talk about our lives” with listeners who understand and, in spite of everything, love unconditionally.

The talented, energetic, young PST company is up to the challenges of Crimes of the Heart, making this show a definite crowd-pleaser for enthusiastic summer audiences. Under the direction of Daniel Rattner, last summer’s PST artistic director and recent Princeton University graduate, the cast interacts as a finely tuned ensemble.

As the play opens, it’s oldest sister Lenny MaGrath’s 30th birthday, and she’s trying hard, all by herself, to celebrate with a single candle that won’t exactly stand up on top of the cookie she just bought. Her ovary is deformed, her love life is empty, her grandfather is dying, and her beloved horse has just been struck by lightning. Both parents are long gone. Father left town and mother committed a murder-suicide in the basement, along with the family cat. Lenny’s two sisters have further disgraced the family — Meg with her loose behavior before she headed west to seek fame as a singer in Hollywood, and Babe (who was having an affair with a 15-year-old) for shooting her husband because she “didn’t like his looks.”

The plot may sound more tragic than comedic, but the tone remains light and the dark humor is rich, as Meg, career in shambles, and Babe, out of jail on bail pending trial, return home and the three sisters confront their daunting predicaments.

The three sisters, played by Maeve Brady, Sarah Paton, and Holly Linneman, come to life in lovingly detailed, idiosyncratic, three-dimensional portrayals. The three supporting characters, meddling cousin Chick (Annika Bennett), Meg’s old boyfriend Doc (Evan Thompson), and the eager young lawyer (Pat Rounds), are less fully developed but definitely striking and larger-than-life in their eccentric, memorable characterizations.

The pace is swift, and the drama and humor are absorbing. You might not have ever met anyone quite like these characters, but it is impossible not to care about their odd, troubled lives, and peculiar relationships.

This PST production company is on a roll with this second of four productions in a six-week period. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s unit set presenting Granddaddy’s kitchen, Alex Mannix’s realistic lighting, and Ms. Bennett’s 1970s costumes are all realistic and on target in creating the world of lower middle class, small-town Mississippi in 1974.

In addition to talent, abundant and diverse experience in both academic and professional theater, intelligence and imagination, this company benefits greatly from their close, continuing working relationships and also from the fact that all the ages of the characters in this play are within ten years of the actors playing the roles. The performances, outlandish as some of these characters and their actions might be, are thoroughly credible. The PST actors understand these characters. Their portrayals exude sympathetic appreciation, and the chemistry is powerful among the sisters and between each of them and the other characters in the play — exciting and gratifying to watch.

Originally produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, Crimes of the Heart opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980, then moved to Broadway where it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play. In 1986 Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek starred in a popular movie version with screenplay by Ms. Henley. Now this first-rate Princeton Summer Theater revival happily demonstrates, with moving warmth and humor, that the passions of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and the resulting “crimes of the heart,” as well as the need to share the stories of our lives, have a timeless relevance, interest, and appeal.

 
June 26, 2013
SCENTS AND SENTIMENTS: Smooth-talker Steven Kodaly (Kenny Francoeur) romances a smiling Ilona Ritter (Katrina Michaels), as perfume shop employees Sipos (Tommy Prast) and Arpad (Brad Wilson) look on in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of the 1963 romantic musical “She Loves Me,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through June 30.

SCENTS AND SENTIMENTS: Smooth-talker Steven Kodaly (Kenny Francoeur) romances a smiling Ilona Ritter (Katrina Michaels), as perfume shop employees Sipos (Tommy Prast) and Arpad (Brad Wilson) look on in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of the 1963 romantic musical “She Loves Me,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through June 30.

“A romantic atmosphere” pervades the Hamilton Murray Theater, as Princeton Summer Theater (PST) embarks on its new season with a rollicking, endearing production of She Loves Me, a 1963 Broadway hit musical by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Joe Masteroff (book).

The atmosphere at PST is also full of energy and excitement, as this community of vibrant, committed theater students and young professionals tackles a challenging classic of the musical theater repertoire. It may be a small musical by blockbuster Broadway standards, overshadowed in many ways by Mr. Bock and Mr. Harnick’s A Fiddler on the Roof, which opened one year later; and it may seem old fashioned in both its 1930s Budapest setting and its traditional, character-driven romantic fare. But She Loves Me, in the capable hands of Sash Bischoff, 2009 Princeton University graduate and currently New York-based director, and her talented 13-member ensemble, takes full advantage of the smallness, which translates into an engaging intimacy and focus, and its old fashioned-ness, which proves to be charming and timeless.

With an impressive contingent of recent graduates and undergraduates from Princeton, NYU, and elsewhere, Princeton Summer Theater is winning over sell-out audiences with this luminous and endearing, thoroughly professional opening production. The outlook for its 45th season could hardly be brighter, as its stimulating, eclectic season continues in July with Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and a stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, followed by Donald Margulies Time Stands Still in August.

Set in a perfume shop, She Loves Me is a retelling of Miklos Laszlo’s Hungarian play, Parfumerie, first staged in 1937. The fact that this story has inspired at least three popular movies — The Shop Around the Corner in 1940 with James Stewart, In the Good Old Summertime in 1947 with Judy Garland, and You’ve Got Mail in 1998 with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, in addition to She Loves Me, is ample evidence of the timeless appeal of this simple story of two perfume clerks who squabble constantly, but, unknown to each other, are romantic pen pals deeply in love with their anonymous correspondents.

She Loves Me presents a variety of stories and perspectives on love and romance amongst the seven major characters. In every role, every musical number, and every major scene these characters and their complex human relationships come to vibrant life through the high-quality acting and commitment to character, first-rate musical accompaniment, superb vocal talent throughout the cast, and the finely tuned pacing, direction, and choreography.

The seven-piece band, under the unerring baton of Emily Whitaker, occupies an orchestra pit in the background across the upstage area, and creates an unobtrusive but powerful presence in delivering this melodious music, as well as supporting the plot and character development here.

The redoubtable, ingenious Jeffrey Van Velsor (set designer) and Laura Hildebrand (technical director) lead the production team and create with flair and resourcefulness the world of Maraczek’s perfumerie and its inhabitants. The scenes shift smoothly and rapidly as the three-part walls turn to transform the locale from inside to outside the shop, then to various other interior and exterior Budapest locations. Alex Mannix’s striking and apt lighting and Annika Bennett’s expressive, colorful period costumes further transport the audience into the world of She Loves Me.

As the central quarrelsome duo, Woody Buck as Georg and Holly Linneman as Amalia are strong from start to finish, with confident, appealing voices, credible, compelling characterizations, and a lively chemistry. They win over the audience from the start, and anticipation rises as the mystery of the anonymous romantic epistles gradually unfolds.

From their romantic reflections over each other’s letters (“Three Letters,” “I Don’t Know His Name”) to eager anticipation at the thought of their first meeting (“Tonight at Eight,” “Will He Like Me?”) to their disappointments, at the end of the first of two acts, when the meeting doesn’t quite come off (“Dear Friend”) — Mr. Buck and Ms. Linneman successfully establish this show’s heartwarming central core. A break-through in their romantic travails, precipitated by a gift of “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and the realization of deep feelings on both sides (“She Loves Me”) come to life in two wonderfully rich and memorable theatrical moments here.

In contrast with this fairy tale romance, Amalia’s outspoken friend and confidante, Ilona Ritter (Katrina Michaels), has her own romantic dilemmas. Ms. Michaels uses an attention-grabbing stage presence and her strong, confident vocal talents to advantage in creating this sympathetic, entertaining character who learns her own lessons in dealing with the vicissitudes of romance with a two-timing (or is it more than two?) paramour.

As Kodaly, Ilona’s urbane, deceiving lover, Kenny Francoeur maintains his suave, charming façade to the end. He crowns his exhortations of true love in the face of all evidence to the contrary in his first-rate song-and-dance numbers, “Ilona” near the end of the first act and his smilingly caustic farewell, “Grand Knowing You,” near the end of the second act.

Meanwhile, in another one of several subplots, Arpad (Brad Wilson), the bicycle-riding, eager young errand boy aspiring to become a clerk, provides perspective and some light comic background as he observes the proceedings, learns some life lessons, and develops in maturity and character as the plot unwinds.

Tommy Prast’s Sipos, another perfume clerk, effectively lends the jaded vantage point of age and experience to the proceedings, while Evan Thompson’s Mr. Maraczek, the aging owner of the shop, contributes additional darker shadings to the tone of She Loves Me with his nostalgic reminiscences of his youth, in the tuneful “Days Gone By,” and his despair and suicide attempt over his wife’s infidelity.

In addition to these intriguing stories, the importance of the ensemble, mostly nameless and in the background though they be, should not be underestimated. Chris Beard, Maeve Brady, Victoria Gruenberg, Emma Paton, Pat Rounds, and Nikki Yarnell, in a variety of roles from fashionable perfume shoppers to restaurant patrons (with a highly dramatic and athletic tour de force by Mr. Beard as the head waiter), sustain their own complex characters and remain credible throughout in helping to create this captivating world.

In discussing the four major productions of the 2013 Princeton Summer Theater season, artistic director Emma Watt says, “They were bound by a common theme of making the ordinary extraordinary.” With its exquisite music, lyrics, and book, under the direction of Ms. Bischoff and her superb PST company, She Loves Me does just that and promises a dynamic, exhilarating PST season ahead.

 
May 15, 2013
LUSTY AND LUPINE: The wolf (Noah Brody) charms Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young) in Fiasco Theater’s spin on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9.

LUSTY AND LUPINE: The wolf (Noah Brody) charms Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young) in Fiasco Theater’s spin on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9.

Your favorite fairy tales — Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel — they start with wishes, and “I wish” is a repeated refrain in Into the Woods (1987), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark and psychological, whimsical and musical spin on the Brothers Grimm. In pursuit of their wishes, all of Sondheim’s characters venture deep into the woods: “Into the woods,/it’s time to go./I hate to leave,/I have to, though./into the woods—/it’s time, and so/I must begin my journey.”

As their specific quests — to escape, to visit Grandma, to sell a cow, to find a prince — continue and interweave with each other, the plot dashes ahead at a rapid pace. The familiar fairy tales remain, but the principal characters develop in interesting, complex, three-dimensional ways, moving far beyond the pre-intermission “happy ending.” A childless baker and his wife, seeking to remove a witch’s curse so they can have a baby, help to tie plot strands together as they join the fray in search of four objects that the witch demands: a red cape (from Red Ridinghood), a white cow (from Jack), yellow hair (from Rapunzel), and a golden slipper (from Cinderella).

Fiasco Theater’s “reimagined” rendition of this much-loved show, playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9, will not disappoint Into the Woods aficionados. Though a single piano, instead of full orchestra, provides most of the musical accompaniment, along with bassoon, cello, trumpet, and guitar picked up and played sporadically by the actors on stage; and just ten actors, with some inventive doubling and tripling of roles, play all the parts; this does not feel like a “stripped down” production.

On the contrary, the wildly imaginative staging, shifting of roles, costuming, sound effects, set and lighting and the contagious spirit of collaboration — a trademark of Fiasco Theater, which recently presented a highly acclaimed six-actor version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline off-Broadway — make this production a lavish feast of music, story-telling, and creativity, further enriched by the irresistible engagement of the audience’s imagination.

Given the frenetic nature of the original, with so many plot strands and such an array of wildly realistic and unrealistic, natural and supernatural characters and extravagant events, Fiasco Theater does a remarkable job of bringing clarity to the proceedings. If there at times seems to be a bit too much going on here — too much plot, too long an evening (almost three hours, with one intermission), too many disparate characters — with the consequent difficulty for the audience in really caring about or identifying with all these questing figures, then perhaps Sondheim and Lapine, rather than Fiasco and McCarter, must take the responsibility.

Based on The Uses of Enchantment (1975), Bruno Bettelheim’s psychological interpretations of fairy tales, Into the Woods is about the importance of stories, stories that are handed down from generation to generation. It is about what those stories mean and how they are told — stories about human experience: growing up, discovering who we are, learning how to accept and to overcome being alone. And it’s about parents and step-parents. “Mother cannot guide you./Now you’re on your own./Only me beside you./Still you’re not alone./No one is alone.”

Then in the second act (“Once upon a time … later …”), as the protagonists all must go back into the woods, the story is about darker concerns: moral decisions (facing the giants!), death, loss, adult passions, and broken marriages. But, perhaps even more importantly, and especially vibrantly realized in this production, Into the Woods is about the sheer delight of stories and the collaboration of storytellers and artists, along with listeners, participating together to bring life and meaning to these stories. To watch and to participate in this rollicking event with these likable, enormously talented performers is a pleasure.

The Fiasco ensemble, several of whose members emerged from the Brown University theater program, takes imaginative collaboration and ensemble playing to new levels. Accompanied by the uncompromisingly adept pianist/music director Matt Castle, an integral part of the proceedings as his piano wheels around the stage from scene to scene, this cast does everything with skill, precision, and abandon — from moving sets, to manipulating props, to transforming costumes and characters, to singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and acting with intensity.

Jessie Austrian, a founder and co-artistic director of Fiasco, plays the Baker’s Wife with memorable conviction and credibility, engaging the audience in her plight, first as childless wife, then as protective mother of a baby, then the straying wife in the second act. She delivers powerful duets and a reflective, moving second-act solo, “Moments in the Woods.”

As the witch (the role originated on Broadway by Bernadette Peters), Jennifer Mudge rises to the challenge with her frightening, witchy tormenting of Rapunzel and the Baker and his wife in the first act, then her transformation into a beautiful princess, her loss of magical powers (“Witch’s Lament”) and her acquired wisdom, all delivered with dramatic and vocal power and appeal.

Emily Young does dynamic double duty as Rapunzel and as a feisty, aggressive Little Red Ridinghood, complete with wolf skin cloak in place of red cloak after her violent, triumphant encounter with the wolf. Claire Karpen’s Cinderella brings interesting added dimensions to the romanticized fairy tale role, as she interacts, in action and song, with not just her eccentrically nasty step sisters and step mother, but also with her deceased mother, a sympathetic Baker’s Wife, a less-than-ideal prince/husband and a host of other characters. Liz Hayes lends strong support with a suitably harsh edge as both Cinderella’s stepmother and Jack’s mother.

Among the male contingent Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen share the prize for versatility and ubiquity — also for extraordinary talent and theatrical prowess of all sorts. Mr. Brody is a deliciously savage, scheming, and lascivious wolf as he sings and wheedles his way with Red Ridinghood (“There’s no possible way/to describe what you feel/when you’re talking to your meal!”).

And how, you might ask, does Mr. Brody also play both wicked step-sister Lucinda and Cinderella’s prince? The answer is a delight to behold, as the two princes’ act one and act two duet (with Mr. Grotelueschen), “Agony” and its reprise, provide comical highlights of the show and timeless commentary on the arrested male psyche. Mr. Grotelueschen, burly and bearded, also offers, with only a bell for a costume and prop, a first-rate characterization of Jack’s cow and a memorable Florinda, wicked second stepsister to Cinderella.

As the Baker, Ben Steinfeld, also a founder of Fiasco and co-artistic director, creates a thoughtful, sympathetic character, as he struggles first with the demands of the witch, then with his wife, then with the perils of fatherhood and other dilemmas throughout the play.

Patrick Mulryan as Jack and the royal Steward contributes two contrasting and credible roles, a powerful voice and strong presence, and Paul L. Coffey as the Mysterious Man adds the appropriate air of mystery and musical expertise both vocally and instrumentally.

Mr. Steinfeld and Mr. Brody, listed as co-directors of the production, have pulled together the multiple disparate elements of this show with focus, dynamic pacing, and extraordinary coordination of acting, music, set, props, lighting, sound, and special effects.

Derek McLane’s imposing set, looking like the enlarged and exploded insides of a piano, provides a fascinating, provocative backdrop to the action. The long, vertical metallic brown rods loom over the set and threaten like the tall dark trees of a forest. The set is a masterpiece in its own right, with definite relevance to the events of the evening. Whether it actually furthers or distracts from Fiasco’s purpose of stripping down to essentials in order to emphasize the actors, the text, and the story is another question.

Choreography by Lisa Shriver, inventive costuming by Whitney Locher, dramatic lighting by Tim Cryan, and striking sound by Darron L. West all contribute essential elements to the stimulation of the audience’s imagination and the creation of this wonderful, magical, sometimes terrifying, sometimes whimsical world of Into the Woods.

To create a cow with just a bell, or a wolf with just a stuffed head and a little leather for paws, or a magical hen with a feather duster, or birds out of paper, or a tower from a wheeling ladder, or a truly terrifying giantess with just a shadow and the booming of a bass drum, not to mention a whole world of Grimm’s fairy tales on a small stage — that’s theater magic, and it can be found in abundance at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre during the next four weeks, in Fiasco Theatre’s exhilarating production of Into the Woods.